High-profile women’s mistakes have been in the news lately. Former JPMorgan executive Ina Drew left the firm in the wake of a massive trading loss, and News International’s Rebekah Brooks is currently on trial as part of that company’s huge phone-hacking scandal. But while lots of studies have compared male and female bosses in general, few have looked specifically at screwups. So psychologists Christian Thoroughgood, Katina Sawyer, and Samuel Hunter decided to find out how gender affects people’s perceptions of bosses “not when they succeed, but when they make mistakes.” They discovered that in some situations, being male can actually be a liability.
The study, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, asked male and female undergrads to read made-up emails describing male and female bosses’ errors. In some, the boss worked as a head nurse, while in others he or she was the foreman on a construction job. After reading the emails, the subjects had to rate how competent the boss was, and how much they would want to work for him or her.
The researchers found that in the traditionally female-dominated field of nursing, male and female bosses’ mistakes were viewed similarly — subjects viewed them as less competent and were less likely to want to work for them, but gender had little effect. In construction, however, male bosses were judged much more harshly for their errors. One subject said of the female foreman, “Although she was unorganized and demanding, she seemed to care about the organization and wanting to improve.” Another said that even though the female boss might be ineffective, “she wants the business to do well.” But the male foreman drew criticisms like, “he’s simply irresponsible,” and “he can’t even order the supplies correctly.”
Thoroughgood and her co-authors think the male foremen came in for tougher criticism because participants had higher expectations for them — as men, they were supposed to do well in the traditionally masculine field of construction. Women, on the other hand, “are presumably expected to fail in masculine work settings.” It’s not clear why the male head nurses didn’t get the benefit of lowered expectations, but the study authors did speculate that some of the errors they chose weren’t gender-specific enough. If they’d shown a female boss, for instance, failing to show warmth or understanding, they might have gotten different results.
Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International, is now on trial for charges stemming from that company’s phone-hacking scandal.
Many studies of gender in the workplace have shown that female bosses struggle with bias. Last year, a study of legal secretaries found that all preferred to work under men. “Female attorneys are either mean because they’re trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can’t handle the stress,” said one. Respondents to a 2010 U.K. survey said women made worse bosses than men because they were too “hormonal.” And a 2004 study found that women who succeeded in male-dominated fields “were characterized as more selfish, manipulative and untrustworthy” than their male counterparts.
However, Thoroughgood and her coauthors’ research suggests that male bosses may have to deal with gender stereotypes too. When they slip up at traditionally masculine jobs, their employees may see it as a failure not just of management, but of manhood.