Women in leadership roles incur more backlash for corporate ethical failures than men

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For women, a leadership role in an organization or company may ensue more backlash for ethical failures in comparison to their counterparts of the opposing gender, a new study suggests.

The new findings, reported by the American Psychological Association, were the result of three experiments led by Nicole Votolato Montgomery, the study’s lead author and an Associate Professor of Commerce at the University of Virginia.

During those experiments, Montgomery and her team of researchers had one fundamental purpose in mind: To inquest how gender roles influence the perception of an organization or company following a competence failure.

For the first experiment, a news story of an auto manufacturer company was issued to 512 participants to read and complete a survey. Researchers distributed the news story in either of three subject matters: A competence failure, in one-third of the participants; an ethical failure, in another one-third of the participants; and a synopsis of the company, in the remaining one-third.

In the survey, the participants advised on whether they would purchase an automobile from the company once they were in the market for one.

After learning of a mechanical issue, in which the company did not take immediate action for, the participants were less likely to purchase products if the chief executive officer (CEO) was a woman in oppose to a man, based on the results.

“When participants were told that the company had previously been made aware of a fuel sensor problem and failed to take immediate action, an ethical failure, they reported less intent to purchase from the company when the CEO was a woman than when the CEO was a man,” Montgomery explained.

“However, when participants were told that the company was previously unaware of the product issue, a competence failure, they reported greater intent to buy the products when the CEO was a woman than when the CEO was a man.”

In the second experiment, Montgomery and her team recruited less participants, 416, to read a similar news story and fill out an identical survey. In this experiment, however, Montgomery set out to determine the impact gender stereotypes may have on the judgment of consumers by changing how CEOs of both genders were described.

To assess the judgment of consumers, they included traits associated with stereotypes in the description of the CEOs. The stereotypes attribute women in leadership positions as communal and men as agentic.

“When leaders are described in ways that reinforce stereotypes, we continue to find that people penalize female-led organizations more for ethical failures, but we can reduce these penalties for female-led organizations by highlighting agentic traits of their leaders,” the study’s co-author said.

Similar to the first experiment, consumers were less likely to purchase from a woman-led company when conformed to gender stereotypes. Interestingly, however, a contrasting effect occurred using discrepant stereotypes among the leadership roles. When the CEO was polarizingly described, the participants were less likely to purchase from the male-led company, this time around, after an ethical failure.

And lastly, for the third experiment, Montgomery focused on how consumers would reason if the woman-led companies were operated in industries labeled as stereotypically-feminine, like a child products company, for instance.

“In the auto industry, which is typically viewed as more male, participants penalized female-led organizations less than male-led organizations for competence failures,” the study’s co-author stated. “However, the opposite was true for a child products company.”

“In that setting, participants who read about a competence failure penalized female-led organizations more than male-led organizations. This further demonstrates how gender stereotypes influence our expectations of leaders and their organizations.”

For ethical failures, the results of all three experiments, in general, construe the significance of exhibiting agentic traits in women actively taking leadership roles.

“We find that leader gender and failure type (ethical, competence) interact to affect individuals’ perceptions of, and propensity to support, an organization after a failure,” Montgomery concluded. “Our findings contribute to the literatures on female leaders, organizational failures, and the influence of norms on evaluator judgments.”