Research Says: Overcoming The Backlash Effect



Study: Overcoming the Backlash Effect: Self- Monitoring and Women’s Promotions (Olivia A. O’Neill, PhD and Charles O’Reilly, Stanford Graduate School of Business 2011)

Finding: Learning to self-monitor your masculine and feminine leadership style characteristics, and evaluate the situations they’re best suited for could mean a faster climb up the corporate ladder.

InPower Insight: Don’t get boxed into any one stereotype – harness both your feminine and masculine traits to see true workplace success.


Good news for all you promotion-seeking women! This study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business says it’s not only okay for women to demonstrate masculine management traits, it can be good for your career when you learn to use them alongside your feminine abilities. As a matter of fact,  you benefit most when you harness the ability to turn both your masculine and feminine traits on and off and recognize when they best serve you.

Researchers Oliva A. O’Neill and Charles O’Reilly discovered that women who exhibit assertion, aggression, and confidence as well as the skills to be able to turn these traits off in certain conditions are more likely to be promoted than other women, and men too. A woman’s capacity to be flexible in these areas is leading to extraordinary results, according to this research.

Over the course of 8 years O’Neill and O’Reilly utilized surveys, observational data and comprehensive interviews of 132 business graduates as the foundation of this study. Findings showed that women who could adapt and regulate their more masculine traits (assertion, aggression, confidence) were 1.5 times more likely to get promoted than their female or male counterparts and twice as likely as their more feminine male counterparts. These women were also found to get promotions 3 times more frequently than women who did not temper or self-monitor their masculine traits.

For women who are trying to advance in their careers while simultaneously battling social stereotypes this research can present a bit of a conundrum, as women who routinely show these masculine assertive traits can sometimes be labeled as un-feminine. This is called the “backlash effect”, which potentially makes this research all the more important, demonstrating that moderating your behavior to one extreme over another rarely works.  Managing your masculine and feminine ways, tempering and self-monitoring and evaluating which traits the situation calls for, and learning these behavioral patterns now can lead to greater workplace successes.

Career Coaching Tips: Be honest with yourself, does your management style tend to lean to one side or the other? Do you default to your tried and true comfort zone no matter what situation you’re in? If the answer is yes and you haven’t yet mastered the full range of leadership traits – on the spectrum from command and control to consensus and collaboration, then you’ve got work to do! Watch others closely for how they manage situations and people in the areas you’re weakest in. Learn from their mistakes and successes – and be sure to be stretching yourself to go grow and experiment as well. Ask for 360 input from those you trust. And if you do use the full range of leadership styles, good for you! Make sure you’re helping others learn to use them effectively as well.

View a Free Webinar given by InPower Women’s Dana Theus reviewing this research and ways you can use it to advance your career.

Keywords: Backlash Effect, Masculine Traits, Promotion, Self-Monitor, Stereotype, Stanford

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