Back in March 2018 a group of Hollywood elites signed an open letter asking men to take more responsibility for creating workplaces that are free of sexism. The letter was in response to the #MeToo movement that spurred people across the world to use social media to bring attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse. The letter signers pledged to act as advocates for victims and to speak out openly against sexism, thereby launching #AskMoreofHim, a movement that highlights the role that men play in preventing gender-based violence.

It seems reasonable to assume that men, especially those occupying positions of power, are in a unique position to act as advocates and allies for victims of sexism and sexual violence. Recent research, however, indicates that men may face a backlash for speaking out on behalf of others. Janine Bosak of Dublin City University in Ireland and her colleagues published a study suggesting that men who take on an advocacy role in the workplace may suffer penalties for going against how we typically expect men to behave. Although the study did not look at men who speak out against sexual bias per se, it strongly implies that men who advocate for others in general may be seen as less competent.

Common stereotypes about men hold that they show ambition at work and focus most of their energy on promoting themselves and their own accomplishments. In contrast, stereotypes about women involve emphasizing other people's feelings and welfare above their own. Social scientists have shown that people who act contrary to these stereotypes tend to elicit “backlash” from both men and women. This backlash may take the form of being seen as less likable, less competent and less suitable for certain jobs.

The researchers recruited 149 working professionals to participate in an online study that was ostensibly about “perceptions and decision-making.” The participants were evenly divided by gender, and although they held a variety of jobs, the majority worked in human resources. Each participant was presented with written application materials from either a man or woman job candidate. The candidate was described as someone who tends to advocate either primarily for himself or herself or for the team. For example, the self-advocating applicant was described as “a fierce worker who diligently works for success” and “wants to receive credit where due and is excellent at promoting himself.” In contrast, the other-advocating applicant was described as “a strong negotiator on behalf of this team” and “a fierce worker who diligently guides his team to success.” After reviewing the application materials, participants filled out a survey asking them about their impressions of the candidate. Specifically, they rated the candidate's likability, competence and how much they would recommend that the person be let go if the company were to downsize. Overall, the findings supported the idea that men who advocated for others were seen less positively. Both men and women rated the other-advocating man as less competent, and they were more likely to recommend that he be laid off in the event of downsizing. Participants also liked the other-advocating man less than they liked the other-advocating woman.

Surprisingly, study participants did not display the same kind of backlash toward the woman applicant who was described as being highly self-advocating. Previous research has demonstrated that people penalize women who behave in highly self-promoting ways; however, this study did not find that to be true. The researchers offer two possibilities for this unexpected finding: earlier studies had participants watch videos of job candidates, which may elicit stronger reactions than just reading written materials, and many of the study participants were trained human resource professionals who may have been more attuned to biases against women.

Backlash against atypical men poses a serious dilemma for those who believe that men are vital to helping battle workplace inequality. We know that men, and in particular white men, are more likely to hold leadership positions in a variety of industries. Movements such as #AskMoreofHim rest on the assumption that men will be motivated to advocate for others if they are sufficiently convinced to do so. The present research, however, suggests that men may shy away from advocacy to avoid being perceived negatively by others. Although we may laud the integrity or compassion of men who speak out on others’ behalf, we may simultaneously question their competence compared with men who do not advocate for others. Therefore, when it comes to fighting sexism and gender-based violence, we might want to start by examining how our own stereotypes may be contributing to the problem. By loosening up our expectations for people of all genders, we can help ensure that individuals feel free to act in ways that promote equality for all in the workplace.