Newswise — A recent study discovered that when women in leadership positions fail to produce successful outcomes, people tend to be more lenient towards them.

The study shows that when people judge the performance of male and female leaders, they do not treat positive results differently. However, when negative outcomes occur, male leaders are often blamed for making selfish choices, while female leaders are more likely to be seen as victims of bad luck.

The research was conducted by a team of scholars from the University of East Anglia in the UK, and the University of Melbourne and Monash University in Australia. They discovered that men, and to some degree, evaluators who behave in ways that benefit others, show gender biases in their evaluations.

Leaders, whether in the public or private sector, often make decisions that impact the lives of others. For instance, political leaders make policy choices that affect the wellbeing of their citizens. In many cases, leaders must choose between pursuing their own interests or prioritizing the interests of others. In such environments, traditional gender roles or stereotypes may suggest that women are expected to act in a more selfless manner.

The researchers published their study in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. They aimed to investigate how leaders' decisions are evaluated and whether there is bias in the way evaluators attribute outcomes to female and male leaders in environments where decisions affect others.

Dr. Boon Han Koh, who is part of UEA's School of Economics and Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social Science, noted that due to society's increasing emphasis on social responsibility, leaders are now under more scrutiny than ever before. This means that leaders, regardless of their sector or industry, are expected to be mindful of their impact on social welfare and engage in more activities that benefit others.

Dr. Boon Han Koh explained that leaders' actions are driven by their concern for the welfare of the group they lead. Therefore, it is essential to examine whether male and female leaders are evaluated differently, as these assessments may impact individuals' decision-making processes.

“We find that positive outcomes of male and female leaders are not treated differently, suggesting that men and women are deemed to be equally altruistic after being seen to achieve positive results.

Dr. Boon Han Koh's research showed that when male leaders fail to achieve positive outcomes, their failures are often attributed to their own selfish decisions. However, when female leaders fail, their failures are more commonly attributed to bad luck. Therefore, when leaders face failure, men are generally assigned more blame than women and perceived as selfish.

To measure individuals' perceptions of others' actions, the researchers conducted their study in a laboratory setting. They specifically focused on a decision-making environment that is common in many leadership settings, where leaders' decisions have an impact on the welfare of the group they lead.

In the study, the actions of leaders were not observed by the other group members who served as evaluators. Instead, the leaders were judged solely on the outcomes they produced. However, the gender of the leaders was revealed to the rest of the group. The researchers found that biases in the attribution of outcomes seemed to favor women, but they caution that this may not necessarily be a positive thing.

Dr. Nisvan Erkal from the University of Melbourne suggested that one possible explanation for the study's findings is that male evaluators may feel the need to treat female leaders more favorably. As a result, female leaders may be given a greater benefit of the doubt in situations where they experience failure.

“A possible explanation for this is benevolent sexism, which tends to lead to behaviours toward women that are often characterised as prosocial. It is driven by the stereotype that women need to be protected.”

Prof Lata Gangadharan, of Monash University, added: “Even though biases in the attribution of negative outcomes as observed in our study seem to favour women, such biases may still lead to adverse outcomes for women.

The researchers caution that gender biases in evaluations that favor women may actually have negative consequences in the long run. Such biases could hinder the career development of female leaders and potentially lead to backlash against them. Furthermore, biases may create distortions in the incentives provided to all decision makers in positions of power, male and female, which could ultimately harm their future actions.

For the experiment 350 participants were put into groups of three, with one person randomly assigned as the leader who made a series of investment decisions on behalf of the group.

In the study, the leaders faced a trade-off between making a costly investment that would lead to a positive outcome (high payoff) for the group or making a less costly investment that had a higher chance of resulting in a negative outcome (low payoff) for the group.

Therefore, the leader could either act prosocially (costly investment which increases the group’s chance of getting a positive outcome), or selfishly (less costly investment which increases the group’s chance of getting a negative outcome).

‘Do women receive less blame than men? Attribution of outcomes in a prosocial setting’, Nisvan Erkal, Lata Gangadharan and Boon Han Koh, is published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

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Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization