Patronizing conduct can negatively affect women employees' performance

University Park, Pa. -- The patronizing behavior of male bosses undermines the performance of female subordinates, according to a new study.

"Positions of power remain a male prerogative. Women make up 46 percent of the U.S. labor force, but are extremely underrepresented in high level positions of power," says Theresa Vescio, Penn State University assistant professor of psychology who led the study. "Therefore, it is important to understand how the behaviors of male bosses affect female subordinates."

Vescio, Sarah Gervais, graduate student, Penn State; Mark Snyder, University of Minnesota, and Ann Hoover, former undergraduate at Penn State and now graduate student at Purdue University, conducted two laboratory experiments. The first experiment examined how male bosses behave toward the female subordinates whom they stereotype. The second experiment examined how female subordinates were affected by the behaviors of their male bosses. The team published its findings in the current (April) 2005 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology .

The researchers defined patronizing behavior as giving subordinates ample praise while withholding valued resources, like raises and promotions. In their first experiment, the authors found that male bosses heaped praise upon the female subordinates whom they stereotyped, but gave the same women few valued resources. As a result, female subordinates received fewer valued resources then their male counterparts, but more praise.

"This sugar-coated pattern of discrimination may allow sexism to slip under the radar." Vescio notes. "It may be hard for men to see that they are behaving in discriminatory ways because the praise they are giving to women may feel like it is a reflection of genuine positive regard."

The unfair nature of patronizing behavior is, however, keenly felt by women, the researchers found. In a second experiment, the team examined how patronizing behavior affects women's emotions and performance. Participants received either valued or devalued positions in combination with praise or no praise. Women who were treated in patronizing ways, or praised when given devalued positions, were angrier than women in the other conditions -- including women who received devalued positions and no praise. Female subordinates who were treated in patronizing ways also performed less well on cognitive tasks, according to the study.

Importantly, "the patronizing behavior of male bosses created gender differences in performance where they otherwise did not exist," Vescio notes. Men and women performed similarly in all conditions except one -- the patronizing condition. Even when women received devalued positions and NO praise, they perform as well as men, according to the study.

From the perspective of subordinates, "patronizing behavior is duplicitous -- the output, or resources received, does not match the input, which was apparently praiseworthy," Vescio notes. In such situations, "praise may have a disingenuous and patronizing nature that may alert women to the fact that they are being stereotyped and undermine the performance of capable women," according to the researchers.

The findings suggest that the behavior of male bosses may contribute to a cycle of discrimination. The patronizing behaviors of male bosses produces gender differences in performance. Gender differences in performance may, in turn, reinforce stereotypic perceptions of women's lesser capabilities, justifying subsequent differential treatment.

However, "male bosses do not always stereotype their female subordinates," Vescio adds. The way in which the goals are articulated determines whether women will be stereotyped. When situations encourage male bosses to focus on subordinates' weaknesses, women are stereotyped and treated in patronizing ways, according to the team.

"When one's goal is to eliminate the weakest link, stereotypes suggest that women may be weak links," she explains. "Stereotypes describe women as illogical, weak, and irrational, which may block success in a variety of traditional achievement domains."

By contrast, when situations encourage male bosses to focus on their subordinates' strengths, stereotypes do not provide information about how women will enhance goal strivings. Therefore, stereotypes are not useful and not used -- male and female subordinates are treated similarly. Eradicating the patronizing behavior of male bosses and the subsequent underperformance of female subordinates, then, requires attention to how goals are articulated, according to the researchers.

"If stereotypes do not provide useful information about women, they are less likely to be used as a basis for meaningful decisions," the Penn State social psychologist says.

Last Updated July 28, 2017