How we judge the mistakes of male vs. female leaders


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September 24, 2012

We’ve all heard the gender stereotypes: Women leaders in the workforce are judged unfairly when they do something emotional like lose their temper, while men are more often given a free pass for yelling at the people who work for them.

But one recent study suggests maybe we’re not so judgmental about the gender of our leaders after all. That is, if you can trust the responses of the nearly 300 undergraduate students who participated in a study led by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Villanova University.

In “Real Men Don’t Make Mistakes,” a study published recently in the Journal of Business and Psychology, researchers asked participants to read a series of fictional employee emails describing the behavior of male and female leaders who worked in the construction or nursing industry. In each case, the leader had made mistakes, either of the “task” variety (such as mishandling resources or poor planning) or of the “relationship” variety (such as losing one’s temper or ignoring employee concerns). There was also a control group where no mistakes had been made.

The researchers hypothesized, as you might guess, that the men would be harshly rated for “task”-oriented mistakes, while women would be dinged for “relationship” errors, since these go against what we tend to think are the strengths of each gender. They also thought these judgments would be harsher when the students were rating male construction supervisors or female nurse leaders because of the male or female stereotypes of those industries. Or as Alex Fradera writes on the British Psychological Society’s Occupational Digest blog, “a female nursing head has no business being bad with people...or so the story goes.”

But as it turns out, their expectations didn’t ring true.

They found, broadly, that male leaders who commit “task” errors were seen as no less competent than women who committed the same errors, while female leaders who violated “relationship” issues were not seen as worse leaders than male leaders who did the same. The one gender difference that did show up was in the construction context: The supposed “foremen” who made both types of mistakes were rated worse than their female counterparts.

What’s interesting is that their results — in which men and women fared roughly the same — might actually reconfirm the presence of biases about how gender plays into leaders’ performance, not negate it. The researchers suggested that one reason women and men who made “task” errors were rated similarly was that the mistakes the research team used in the study, such as poor planning, are actually related to the organizational skills on which women are expected to excel. In addition, women in the construction field might have been judged less severely because they were already “presumably expected to fail in masculine work settings,” the researchers wrote. Ouch.

I credit the researchers for looking at leadership mistakes, rather than just what makes leaders successful. However, I think the study would have been more interesting if they had looked at how we view the true errors of top leaders—having short-sighted vision, poorly communicating goals or strategies, or breaking employees’ trust—rather than the more pedestrian managerial mistakes made by the study’s fictional characters.

And while on some level, it’s encouraging to see that women aren’t getting more harshly judged for being emotional or not relating well with people, the underlying story here is that gender bias is still very much alive.

More from Jena McGregor and On Leadership:

Women in tech dominate Fortune’s annual power ranking

Do jerks make better leaders?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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