Male leaders are judged more harshly than their female counterparts for their errors

It is a widespread – and disputed – assumption that men and women have different leadership styles, but when it comes to judge leadership behaviour, the traditional paradigm ‘Think Manager – Think Male’ comes to mind. At least until the executive makes a mistake. In that case, male leaders are seen as less competent, effective and desirable to work for than female managers in the same situation, a new study from the Pennsylvania State University has just found.
The researchers made about 280 students read fictional emails describing the behaviours of a male and a female leader, and then asked them to rate the leaders’ competences, their effectiveness as well as the students’ desire to work for these leaders. Not surprisingly, the mistakes of the leaders described in the emails damaged the image of the person in question and made them appear less competent and effective. But in the scenario where a leader made a mistake in a male dominated industry like construction, he was judged more harshly than his female counterpart. This finding does not seem to be in line with the anecdotal experience that women are under more rigorous observation, especially when their job does not comply with stereotypical role expectations, and hence more often criticised. The researchers explain their results with the possibility that women might be considered less competent in a male dominated environment in the first place and therefore expected to fail more likely. They support their explanation with the finding that male and female leaders were evaluated equally when working as head nurses.
In any case, the study emphasises the significance of (role) expectations and the impact of assumption, and how this can easily result in bias. Discussing the human evaluation process is consequently a key element of D&I education and training.