It is a disappointing to think that in today’s society some men still feel threatened by women in power, but unfortunately, this fact remains true. Thanks to perceptions of masculinity that have not evolved with changing attitudes toward female capabilities, some men still feel a need to assert themselves when a woman has taken power. In a recent study published in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, researchers have found that men are more threatened by female supervisors than by male bosses, and will act more assertively when faced with a female boss in order to shift power dynamics.

“The concept of masculinity is becoming more elusive in society as gender roles blur, with more women taking management positions and becoming the major breadwinners for their families,” said Ekaterina Netchaeva, assistant professor at Bocconi University in Milan, in a recent press release. “Even men who support gender equality may see these advances as a threat to their masculinity, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not.”

According to the study, as the Labor Department reports that females working in middle and lower management is on the rise in the United States, men are being increasingly met with women who outrank them in job settings. Women, however, are still underrepresented in senior management. In order to measure these effects, Netchaeva and her colleagues conducted three experiments evaluating how men respond to women bosses.

The first experiment featured 76 college students, 52 male and 42 female, who were told to negotiate their salary at a new job. Through a computer exercise, the students discussed their salary with either a male or female manager, and were then asked after the negotiation to take an implicit threat test. The test exposed students to words on a computer screen that appeared for less than a second, and they were asked to choose based on their first instinct. Words like “fear” or “risk” were associated with feeling more threatened, says researchers.

Not surprisingly, male college students reacted more aggressively in salary negotiations with female managers, pushing for a higher average salary of $49,400 while also choosing more words that mark feeling threatened on the second part of the test. Men who negotiated with male bosses did not negotiate so assertively, pushing for an average salary of $42,870. Female participants negotiated for the same amount regardless of the gender of the manager, pushing for $41,346 on average.

For the second experiment, researchers asked 68 male college students how they’d divide a $10,000 bonus between themselves and a male or female team member, or a male or female supervisor. When it came to splitting money among their working equals, the students had no problem evenly distributing the bonus among a man or a woman team member. However, when it came to dividing the bonus with a female supervisor, the students acted more aggressively and tried to take more money for themselves, which they did not do with a male supervisor.

The final experiment proved to be similar to the second, asking 370 adult participants, 226 male and 144 female, how they would share a $10,000 bonus with a female supervisor who was either described as proactive and direct, or self-promoting and power-seeking. Male participants were once again more inclined to take a larger share of the bonus if female supervisors were described as ambitious, but proved less threatened by female supervisors who were not striving for power. Female participants, however, indiscriminately split the bonus to both proactive and ambitious female supervisors.

Netchaeva says these findings could indicate brewing problems within the workplace, which could, in turn, affect how employees work together. “In an ideal world, men and organizations would be concerned by these findings and adjust their behavior accordingly,” she said. “But if they don’t, where does this leave women?”

This is a good question. While men may have a difficult time overcoming these perceived “threats” ambitious women bring them, it is completely necessary to do so in order to progress toward a more harmonious work environment. The ambitious woman is not a new phenomenon; women have always wanted to progress in the work world, but have just been given the avenue to do so relatively recently in our history. Let’s not stifle female growth in the work environment by diminishing the value of a powerful woman. After all, if she’s willing and capable, who are we to stop her?

Source: Netchaeva E, Kouchaki M, Sheppard L. D., et al. A Man's (Precarious) Place: Men's Experienced Threat and Self-Assertive Reactions to Female Superiors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2015.