Are Women Leaders Less Likely Than Men to Be Blamed for Bad Performance

A new study by researchers in England and Australia finds that women leaders are given the benefit of the doubt when they do not achieve the desired results. The authors found that evaluators blame the negative results obtained by male leaders on their selfish decisions. Bad performances by women leaders are more likely to be attributed to bad luck.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia in England, and the University of Melbourne and Monash University in Australia, separated 350 participants into groups of three, with one person randomly assigned as the leader who made a series of investment decisions on behalf of the group. The leader was presented with a decision between choosing a costly investment that led to a positive outcome (high payoff) for the group, or a less costly investment that had a higher chance of a negative outcome (low payoff) for the group. The actions taken by the leaders could not be observed by the other group members, the evaluators, meaning the leaders were judged on the outcomes they delivered. The gender of the leader was revealed to the rest of their group.

The researcher found biases in the attribution of outcomes that seemed to favor women but warn this might not be a good thing. “One interpretation of our results is that male evaluators may see the need to treat female leaders more favorably, therefore giving them a greater benefit of the doubt in the face of failure,” said lead author Nisvan Erkal of the University of Melbourne. “A possible explanation for this is benevolent sexism. It is driven by the stereotype that women need to be protected.”

Co-author Lata Gangadharan, of Monash University, added, “Even though biases in the attribution of negative outcomes as observed in our study seem to favor women, such biases may still lead to adverse outcomes for women. For example, gender biases in evaluations that favor women may hinder the development of their careers and increase the possibility of backlash against female leaders in the long run.”

The full study, “Do Women Receive Less Blame Than Men? Attribution of Outcomes in a Prosocial Setting,” was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study

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