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Study: Men who advocate for others may be seen as less competent

After the #MeToo movement began, there came a new hashtag: #AskMoreofHim. The idea was to urge men in positions of power to take a more active role in preventing gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. Will they? Or might it cost them to do so?

A recent study by researchers at Dublin City University suggests that men who advocate on behalf of others are perceived less positively, although women who do so are not. The issue seems to be that men who stand up for their peers are seen as behaving counter to an established gender stereotype.

Men are generally expected to focus their energy on promoting themselves and their accomplishments, while women are generally expected to emphasize other peoples' needs and feelings above their own. Whenever people act contrary to those expectations, they risk a backlash from members of both genders. This backlash, the study suggests, comes in the form of being seen as less likeable or competent, and less suited for certain types of jobs.

The study involved 149 working professionals, most of them in human resources. They were evenly divided by gender and held a variety of jobs. They were given application materials for a supposed job candidate, either a man or a woman, who was described either as someone who fiercely advocates for their own success or as someone who is a strong negotiator or guide for a team.

The participants were asked to rate the job candidate's competence and likeability, along with how likely they would recommend the candidate be slated for termination in the event of a company downsizing.

The results were striking. Both male and female participants rated the men who advocated for others or contributed to a team as less competent -- and they were more likely to be let go in a theoretical downsizing. The men who focused on self-promotion were rated as more competent-seeming.

Interestingly, the participants did not penalize the women who were described as focusing on self-promotion, although previous research demonstrates that people generally do have more negative perceptions of women who behave in self-promoting ways. The researchers speculate that this may be due to the large number of HR professionals among the participants, because people in HR may have been trained to recognize common biases against women.

If men are likely to receive backlash if they stand up for the rights of others, they will be less inclined to do so. This research suggests that simply asking men to step up and be advocates may not be effective unless the underlying stereotypes are challenged. The first step toward change may be examining how our own gender expectations contribute to the problem.

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