We tend to be harder on female leaders when they make mistakes
4 min read
04 May 2016
In a recent study, Victoria Brescoll, a social psychologist at Yale School of Management, examined whether female leaders are judged more harshly for small mistakes when in traditionally male occupations.
Brescoll gave participants two versions of a fictional news story whereby, for example, a police chief was trying to prevent a protest rally. It got out of hand though and the chief dispatched squad cars. In one version of the story, the chief didn’t send enough policemen, which resulted in 25 people being injured.
And believe it or not, what Brescoll and her colleagues found was that it did matter whether the police chief who made the bad call was male or female. In fact, a male chief that had inadvertently injured 25 civilians saw his rating as an effective chief drop by ten per cent. However, a female in the same position and situation would see a drop of 30 per cent.
The majority of participants also wanted to demote her, while most never made any such mention for the male chief.
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In another version of the story, the protest was pacified when the chief sent in the squad cars and no one was injured. In that version, participants gave both leaders high marks. Essentially, the research suggested that a female leader wasn’t seen to be a poor fit until she made a mistake – and was judged for it more no matter how small the mistake.
The two other traditionally male jobs that Brescoll took a look at was the CEO of an engineering firm and the chief judge of a state supreme court – only to find that the pattern persisted.
Harvard Business Review’s Therese Huston further took a look at whether there was a situation in which a man was judged more harshly for making a bad call.
“There was – a male president of a women’s college,” Huston said. “In this leadership role, a role often played by women, men paid a price for showing poor judgment. Were there any other highly respected, powerful roles people associated with women? I asked Brescoll that question, and she said they’ve looked for other leadership positions that are both seen as high status and primarily held by women. They haven’t found any. A president of a women’s college was the only one.”
Brescoll allegedly added: “It’s kind of depressing to be honest.”
What we now know, however, is that until we associate women with leadership roles, mistakes will remain more costly for women.
In 2010, Sheryl Sandberg delivered a speech that offered three pieces of advice to women aiming for the C-suite. We took a look at one of her tips.
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