Understanding Backlas against Managers: The Role of Subordinates' Sex and Self-esteem

Publication Type

Conference Paper

Publication Date



Research on gender stereotypes at work focuses on the incongruence between expectations associated with gender-typed jobs or behaviors and employees’ sex. It shows women often violate traditional female stereotypes (e.g., caretaker) when they hold jobs associated with men (e.g., manager), and thus women face the backlash effect (i.e., social and economic penalties; Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004; Rudman, 1998). Congruent with this, we assess backlash by studying subordinates’ perceptions of managerial aggression. Further, as related moderators are rarely studied, we measure subordinate’s self-esteem and gender. Typically when facing a threat to self-image, individuals derogate others to make themselves feel better. Thus, we predict that subordinates with low self esteem will derogate women managers by rating them as more aggressive compared to subordinates with high self-esteem. Finally, almost exclusively, backlash research uses hypothetical scenarios or experimental lab settings; we explore this effect in organizations. Study 1 participants included 142 subordinate-manager dyads (284 individuals; 73% response rate) consisting of full-time employees working in multiple industries in Singapore. Managers’ gender was measured at Time 1. Subordinates’ self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965) was measured at Times 1 (a = .87), 2 (a = .87) and 3 (a = .88). Subordinates at Time 3 rated their respective managers’ aggression (Buss & Perry, 1992; a = .94). Results show that women managers were seen as more aggressive than men managers in all situations, except when male subordinates had high self-esteem ( = .84, p <.10). For Study 2 we recently gathered 133 triads of data (Manager-Subordinate A - Subordinate B); this will allow us to replicate above findings and also explore how each of two subordinates under a manager view the manager similarly or differently, depending on subordinate sex and self-esteem. Women managers face backlash at work, regardless of the gender of their subordinates. Organizations should be conscious of this bias as it may impact formal human resource practices like performance evaluations (e.g., 360-degree feedback systems) and informal aspects (e.g., manager-subordinate relationships). Because the self-esteem of subordinates, particularly men, plays a role in moderating the backlash effect on women managers, organizations might emphasize programs that enhance self-esteem (e.g., career development).


gender, self-esteem


Organizational Behavior and Theory | Psychology

Research Areas

Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources


European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology Conference, Maastricht, 25-28 May 20111

City or Country

Maastricht, Netherlands

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