There’s research that shows that when women behave the same way in the office as men, their male co-workers and supervisors are more likely to attach negative adjectives to their behavior. Those adjectives can make the difference between a promotion and no promotion.

A study published today in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin indicates that women in positions of authority also meet with more resistance in their interactions with male employees because those men perceive female bosses as a threat to their masculinity.  

Female Bosses

In a three-part study, researchers concluded that men pushed for higher salaries in scenarios where the hiring manager was a woman. Women lobbied for lower salaries overall and showed no difference between male and female hiring managers.

The researchers made the case that the men did this to assert themselves to compensate for what they perceive as an affront to their masculinity.

“A lot of previous studies that have looked at this backlash have looked at it via ratings,” said Leah Sheppard, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management at Carson College of Business at Washington State University, who was one of the authors of the study. “Our study is part of a smaller body of literature that looks beyond just the types of evaluation and looks at actual behavioral reactions.”

And while many studies on gender roles at the office have looked at why more women aren’t promoted, Sheppard and her colleagues looked at situations the women who do attain management roles are likely to face.

While women remain largely boxed out of executive roles in U.S. corporations, they occupy about half of middle management positions.

The study also showed that when female bosses adopt a more collaborative or administrative style of leadership, they are met with less backlash than when they are overtly ambitious.

Researchers compared participants’ reactions to two imaginary co-workers, each described in a short paragraph.

The two descriptions — one ambitious and one administrative — each had male and female names attached to them. Participants were least likely to share money with the ambitious female character.

“There’s a really fine line where women can behave in a certain way and be successful,” Sheppard said. “It’s not as though this is actually excellent news.”

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Slow Path to Progress

But the findings aren’t all bad news, either, according to Emily Amanatullah, Ph.D., assistant professor in management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

Amanatullah was not involved with the study, but she has researched men’s reactions to women in the workplace.

“You have to take a step back to find the positive of recognizing where systemic biases exist. Every time we’re more aware of these biases, we’re more prepared to overcome them,” she said in an interview with Healthline.

“It’s these implicit beliefs that drive the way we make sense of the world around us, not just based on gender but based on social status,” Amanatullah said.

The upside of gender research like the new study, she added, comes “if we think more deliberately about ‘who is this person I’m talking to?’ and treat them as an individual rather than the sum of their social categories. Hopefully, awareness brings deliberative thought.”

Supervisors who evaluate employees have a clear opportunity to consider the new study and others like it. If they interrogate their own perceptions of their employees, they can catch themselves jumping to conclusions for female workers that they might not reach for male workers or for black workers that they might not reach for white, according to Amanatullah.

We ought to be “asking ourselves test questions and being honest with ourselves about the answer” and “taking a real look in the mirror about how all social categories are affecting the way we evaluate others,” she said.

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Tough Situation for Female Bosses

But for women, the findings may be harsh medicine.

Sheppard acknowledged that the administrative version of authority with whom male study participants were more willing to work is someone who acts more deferential, pretending to have less power than she does.

Such mitigating strategies are nevertheless a growing field of workplace psychological research because they provide women with more choices. 

Amanatullah noted the irony of advising women to act less authoritative in order to be more successful at work. 

“It’s a sad state of affairs in that women are sort of playing into those stereotypes,” she said. But “archaic gender roles” still underpin how most of us think of the differences between men and women, or between masculinity and femininity. 

“While women are trying to put Band-Aids on their own lives, we can’t lose sight of trying to change the larger problem,” Amanatullah said. 

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