Women are 10 times as likely to receive negative comments in online chatrooms as men, and three times as likely to be harassed when playing online games.
Studies have shown that bullying is more common in strong hierarchies, with victims being less powerful and lower in the social order. Bullying, therefore, becomes a strategy for individuals to increase their status in a hierarchy, preventing others from rising above them.
Women are 10 times as likely to receive negative comments in online chatrooms as men, and three times as likely to be harassed when playing online games. Many conclude that this disproportionate level of abuse toward women is misogyny as a result of women entering male-dominated spaces.
However, Michael Kasumovic and Jeff Kuznekoff, authors of the new study - which is published in the journal PLOS ONE - propose another explanation:
"If we look at misogyny from another perspective, could it be a form of inter-sexual bullying that arises when women compete against men? Men who are afraid of losing their position in a hierarchy to a woman may be lashing out, leaning on the most stereotypical traits because they have the effect of reducing a woman's power."
Using the shooting game Halo 3 and a program called Bungee that calculates players' skill level based on their performance in the game, the authors tested this idea.
In the game, teams of four players compete against other teams, communicating with each other using headsets.
The authors used recordings of male and female voices across 126 online games of Halo 3 and recorded and compared the responses of the other players. All of the other players in the games were male.
When the researchers played the game using the male voice, they found that teammates who died in the game more often generally made more positive comments toward the player, and their own performance in the game did not correlate with the number of negative comments the player received.
However, when the authors used a female voice, the player received much more negativity, and these negative comments mostly came from teammates who were performing poorly.
Poor performance 'indicates lower status in the hierarchy'
Kasumovic and Kuznekoff write that this result suggests the men were behaving according to a social hierarchy, where poor performance is an indicator of lower status.
While skill level did not affect how the players behaved towards a male-voiced teammate, the men low in skill behaved negatively towards the female-voiced teammate. The higher-skilled men, however, were more positive towards the female-voiced player, but not the male-voiced player.
"The take-home seems to be that, just like bullies, the men most likely to have their position in a hierarchy usurped by a woman turned out to be meaner," the authors write.
Kasumovic and Kuznekoff attempt to explain this finding from an evolutionary perspective. They point out that research has shown mating chances for men are determined more by status than looks. Therefore, a woman outperforming a man is "usurping" his status, which makes him less attractive to a potential mate - especially if that potential mate is higher in the hierarchy than he is.
"The hostile aspects of gaming culture could thus be explained as the search for, and maintenance of, status. One way to ensure that a man doesn't lose to a woman is to keep women from competing by making them feel unwanted in that environment," the authors conclude.