Managing Success In Nontraditional Jobs

A year ago, Francine got her dream job: a senior management position at a Florida aerospace firm. Unfortunately, the position she had aspired to for years was turning into a nightmare. While she loved the work, her colleagues’ reaction to her role was growing increasingly hostile. Teamwork was a struggle. Francine was stonewalled by colleagues and left out of important decisions. She even learned that the male executives were gossiping about her.

Her strategy was to work harder. She thought that if she demonstrated her competence and importance to the team she’d be accepted.

Yet the opposite happened. The more Francine shone, the worse her colleagues behaved towards her. They withdrew, sabotaged her efforts and undermined her confidence.

Francine’s problem was more than professional jealousy. Psychologists Madeline Heilman and Aaron Wallen at New York University and Daniella Fuchs and Melinda Tamkins at Columbia University, writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology have identified a pattern of behaviour where women are penalized by both sexes when they succeed at jobs usually held by men.

When women are highly competent in jobs deemed “man’s work” they tend to be viewed as less likable and more hostile in their interactions with others by both men and women.

The same is true for men who successfully venture into nontraditional male roles such as nursing, childcare or aerobics instruction for example. They tend to be seen as less likeable than women who occupy these roles.

Research shows that being well liked and not being viewed as hostile are important to career advancement. When people who occupy roles not considered appropriate to their sex are judged less likeable and more hostile, their careers suffer. Performance ratings go down and they become ineligible for salary increases or promotion.

But there are ways to cope with these biases. Here are four:

1. Acknowledgement
It might be tempting to say work is not a popularity contest and that someone like Francine should just ignore negative reactions in her non-traditional role. However, a better approach might be to recognize the hostile reactions stem from the perception that she is the “wrong” gender for the job. It helps to understand staff are being seen as less likeable because of their non-traditional job status, rather than a personal flaw. The research shows that everyone is susceptible to this kind of bias. By being conscious of negative assumptions when under the care of a competent male dental hygenist or when making a business deal with a successful female CFO, negative reactions can be reduced.

2. Businesses Beware
If workers in your organization aren’t aware of these common gender biases, they may be undermining star performers. Businesses can ill afford to hobble their most competent employees by allowing sabotaging behaviours based on gender. Being aware of the tendency to judge women and men who work in non-traditional roles harshly may help decision-makers when deciding bonuses, salary increases and promotions. Being careful to reward competent men and women will aid organizational success.

Recruiting members of both sexes to positions is another way to combat stereotypes. The more frequently workers encounter people in different roles the more opportunities there are to adjust our assumptions and attitudes.

3. Supervisor Support
When leaders recognize hostility towards successful men and women in non-traditional roles, they can offer support to their staff. Explaining the dynamic to workers and exploring the possibility that interpersonal tensions may be due to biases and negative assumptions is an important step.

For example, one supervisor challenged male staff on their attitudes towards a draftwoman-they saw her as a target for put-downs and when she ignored them, characterized her as humourless. Once the supervisor pointed out they were doing this because she was a female in the drafting department and told them to give her a break, the teasing became good-natured. Her colleagues ended up defending her in situations whenever the same pattern emerged.

4. Coping with Negative Reactions
Workers who are successful at “women’s work” or competent in “men’s jobs”, not only meet and exceed their profession’s standards, but they must learn to handle colleague’s discomfort as well. Men in nontraditional roles have to cope with people questioning their motives (why do you want to work with preschoolers? I guess you’re working as an aerobics instructor to meet women) or their masculinity. Women may have to address subordinate’s concerns about reporting to a female, have their authority to make decisions questioned or fend off attempts to label them as controlling.

In some situations, mentioning the issue to the party involved or one’s supervisor can make a difference. Making others aware of the universal tendency to struggle with people who don’t fit preconceived ideas, may help. As well, being able to recognize that a bias exists aids in managing the interaction. Non-traditional workers can stay consistently business-like and upbeat and refrain from responding angrily when confronted with negative assumptions.

Francine decided to keep her standards high, remain personable and team-oriented. She also confided in a sympathetic colleague who agreed to address the issue with her as it arose on the executive team.

At the same time, Francine introduced diversity seminars to her subordinates. She spoke to them about damaging assumptions regarding race and gender. By remaining approachable, seeking support and working to engage her own subordinates, Francine slowly created a friendlier climate that was open to challenging inefficient beliefs.

Men who successfully do “women’s jobs” and women who perform “men’s work” are living outside the gender box. Supporting them in their roles is key to retaining highly competent personnel, opening doors to healthy attitudes and operating a successful business.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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