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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Ana C. Leite

26.05.2018, by Tina Keil in grant report

University of Kent, UK; Project: "Are women (vs men) leaders more harshly punished when they do something wrong?"

I would like to start by thanking the EASP for awarding me a seedcorn grant. This grant has allowed me to gain a better understanding about whether and how women (vs. men) who are leaders face more negative judgments when they do something wrong. For several years now I have been interested in investigating the differential judgements groups make of non-normative or atypical group members. Research shows that although groups are normally not very positive about their own, ingroup, members who break norms or express deviant opinions (Marques, Yzerbyt, & Leyens, 1988), they give transgression credit to their ingroup leaders (Abrams, Randsley de Moura, & Travaglino, 2013). That is, groups seem to treat their own leaders with leniency and are more likely to turn a blind eye to their acts than they are when the deviant is a regular (non-leader) member. But is this true of women leaders as well?

A wealth of research suggests that women face very unique challenges and obstacles in their career progressions. Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions (Catalyst, 2017; Huber & O’Rourke, 2017) and are more likely to be appointed to precarious and risky positions (glass cliff effect, Ryan & Haslam, 2005; Ryan, Haslam, Hersby, Kulich, & Atkins, 2007; Ryan, Haslam, & Kulich, 2010). But what happens when women reach the top? It is plausible that the barriers that impede women’s career progression might also pose additional challenges to women in leadership positions.

Role incongruity theory suggests that women are typically seen as communal (e.g., caring, sensitive, compassionate) whereas men are typically expected to be more agentic (e.g., determined, competitive). Therefore, whereas the expected attributes of men match those of leaders, there is a mismatch with the stereotypes of women, with women leaders being penalised because they threaten gender hierarchy (Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Nauts, 2012). This is particularly true when women adopt masculine leadership styles, such as autocratic versus democratic (Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992; Johnson, Murphy, Zewdie, & Reichard, 2008). Furthermore, previous research suggests that people in gender-incongruent jobs (female police chiefs and male women’s college presidents) are penalised more harshly when they make mistakes (Brescoll, Dawson, & Ulhmann, 2010). And there is also evidence that suggest that women CEOs face greater threat of shareholder activism compared to men CEOs, again because they are role incongruent (Gupta, Han, Mortal, Silveri, & Turban, 2018). It is therefore likely that women might face stronger backlashes when they engage in an unethical conduct. The studies that I conducted in this grant are to show proof of concept.

Furthermore, there is evidence to support differential judgements of women leaders based on the gender of the evaluator. For example, men are more likely to perceive the workplace as equitable. A recent survey with 70,000 employees has suggested that compared to women, men are more likely to perceive that their companies treat employees fairly and do a good job on gender diversity (Thomas et al., 2017). A meta-analysis by Eagly, Makhijani, and Klonsky (1992) showed an overall tendency for the devaluation of female leaders (vs. male leaders) when they had a stereotypical masculine style, particularly when the evaluators were men. It is therefore likely that when judging a leader’s wrongdoings female leaders are more negatively judged compared to men, particularly when men are the evaluators. I conducted four studies to test these ideas. For all studies participants were recruited via the crowdsourcing platform Prolific Academic.

In Study 1, participants were asked to recall and briefly describe a situation in which a current or past leader/manager/supervisor did something ethically questionable and asked to evaluate the leader and the behaviour. Results showed that whereas female participants did not differentiate between male and female leaders, male participants were more tolerant of the male leader (vs. female leader) behaviour, more willing to work with them, perceived them as better role models, and considered the impact of their behaviour on the organization to be less harmful.

Study 2 used an experimental vignette describing a VP unethical behaviour, and followed a Participant gender x Leader gender design. This study showed main effects of participant gender, with women participants being more punitive than men participants; women also perceived the leader less ethical than man did, found the behaviour less acceptable, less willing to work with the leader, and considered the leader a worse role model than men did.

In Study 3, we added a new factor: gender stereotypes. The design was Participant gender x Leader gender x Leader traits (communal vs agentic) and targets were always unethical leaders. There was a marginal 3-way interaction for evaluation, showing that female unethical leaders who are communal (vs. agentic) are more positively judged by male participants (but not by women participants).

Study 4 asked participants to recall a leader, as in Study 1, but this time, the instruction asked them to recall a leader who did something ethically inappropriate (and to describe that behaviour), with the idea being not giving room for the behaviour to be judged as questionable depending on gender. This time, we did not observe the differences in judgments that we did in Study 1.

Overall, the studies conducted within the grant provide preliminary support to the idea that the gender of the leader is taken into account when people judge their unethical behaviours. Results show that the gender of the evaluator or follower also makes a difference. Specifically, women do not seem to judge men and women leaders differently, whereas men seem to. Results also show that the gender of the leader might not be the unique aspect determining the differential judgments, gender stereotypes also seem to play role. The results of this research will be presented on 30th of May 2018 in the “Context, Identity and Choice: Understanding the Constraints on Women’s Career Decisions” conference organised by Professor Michelle Ryan and her team as part of a project funded by the European Research Council.

One of the challenges with the survey studies was the unbalanced conditions. Although the number of female and male participants were balanced, we had no control about the gender of the leader. There were far less male participants that described a situation with a female leader than any other possibility. However, this might reflect the underrepresentation of women in top positions, and the barriers women face to become leaders and succeed in male-dominated contexts (Eagly, 2007). In any case, this is preliminary evidence and more research is needed to fully understand these effects.

I would like to finish by thanking the EASP for all the opportunities throughout the years. It all started with a fantastic Summer School in Limerick in 2012, and since then many opportunities and friendships, have followed. I would also like to thank the amazing Sibylle Classen for all the help throughout this and other processes, and my colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Group Processes, University of Kent for advice and support.