Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Are leaders judged more harshly for mistakes that break with gender stereotypes?

We all make mistakes. A recent piece of research investigates how our feelings about leaders are affected when they slip up, and asks whether we are more forgiving when the error is 'to be expected' because of gender stereotypes.

Researchers Christian Thoroughgood, Katina Sawyer and Samuel Hunter produced a series of sets of emails describing how fictional employees perceived their leader. The leader - male or female, in either a masculine (construction) or feminine (nursing) industry - was presented in one of three error conditions. In the first they were revealed to have made three task errors such as badly managing resources. The second involved three relationship errors such as losing their temper, and the final was a 'no error' condition. The 301 student participants, primarily female, rated how competent the leader was at tasks and relationship, and how much they would want to work for them. Thoroughgood's team predicted that women leaders would be judged more harshly when they make a relationship error, and men for task errors, as these violate expectations of where each gender should be competent. In addition, they predicted this would be compounded when working in a same-gendered industry: a female nursing head has no business being bad with people...or so the story goes.

In fact, the results were a little different. Making errors certainly led to lower ratings, with task competence being hit harder by task errors, and vice versa. But the kind of errors that men and women made didn't seem to matter, neither overall nor when effects in the specific industries were examined. They key gender difference that was established was that for both kinds of errors, men received more severe judgements than women, but only in the construction industry conditions. It appears participants have unequal expectations for men and women's competence, holding the highest bar for men operating in a comfort zone environment. It's worth noting that the gender of participants was evaluated as a co-variate in the analysis, ensuring that the preponderance of women didn't lead to systematic bias.

The authors reflect that the relationship/task errors could have been more sharply gendered; for instance, accurate email planning (a task error) may be seen equally as a female managerial trait as well as a male one. But on the face of this evidence, people expect men and women to be competent across domains if they want to be seen as a competent, desirable leader.
ResearchBlogging.orgChristian N. Thoroughgood, Katina B. Sawyer, & Samuel T. Hunter (2012). Real Men Don’t Make Mistakes: Investigating the Effects of Leader Gender, Error Type, and the Occupational Context on Leader Error Perceptions Journal of Business and Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10869-012-9263-8

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