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Women Managers Go to Bat for Subordinates, UMD Study Shows

Business Researchers Also Find Men Compete Harder When Advocating for Other Men

By Karen Johnson

Illustration of man standing on male symbols and woman standing on male and female symbols playing tug-of-war

A new UMD study shows that when advocating for subordinates, male or female, women become as competitive as men at work. Men tend to advocate more strongly for other men, the researchers found.

Illustration by iStock

Although a body of research shows that men generally approach the workplace with a more competitive mindset than women, female managers are equally competitive when advocating for their direct reports, according to new a University of Maryland study.

The researchers including Robert H. Smith School of Business’s Cristian Deszö also found that male managers become more competitive advocating for male subordinates, based essentially on a misunderstanding about how women think about work, according to research published recently in Strategic Management Journal.

The research team wondered if other studies showing that women are more “prosocial”—focused on creating harmony and acceptance in group or team settings—implies that female sponsors would ramp up their advocacy when working on behalf of others, becoming as competitive as men in that context. They also explored whether homophily—a preference for someone like you— and discrimination would play a role. Such behavior from male managers has the effect of “reinforcing, and even causing, gender disparities in organizations and society at large,” according to the study.

Deszö co-authored the research with Smith Ph.D. candidate Nathan Barrymore and Ben King Ph. D. ’21, a postdoctoral research associate.

In a series of experiments in a simulated organizational setting with online workers, they found that when rewards to subordinates accrue, female managers would become more competitive, regardless of whether they’re advocating for a man or a woman.

“These results suggest that female managers are effective sponsors: They are willing to go to bat for their protégés at levels similar to those of their male colleagues,” Deszö said.

Although male managers’ competitiveness remained static when rewards accrued to protégés, they were much more competitive when the protégés were male. Closer analysis showed that rather than being based on homophily, male managers’ behavior was predicated by the mistaken belief that other men have higher risk tolerances at work and would thus be willing to take on higher-stakes assignments.

“While there are small differences in average risk preference across gender in our sample, male managers behave as if they believe, incorrectly, that these differences are large,” the researchers wrote.

Once male managers knew individual risk preferences, the competitiveness gap in going to bat for subordinates of different genders would nearly disappear, the study found.

“The practical implication of this result is that short of providing information about female direct reports’ actual risk preferences, male managers may perpetuate gender disparities through their decision of who to compete for,” they wrote. “Our findings, thus, point toward a novel strategy to improve the effectiveness of sponsorship programs in organizations and hopefully stimulate more research.”



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