Women CEOs Judged More Harshly for Ethics Violations Than Male Peers, Study Finds

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Nov 7, 2019

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Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. (Image Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images)

Women CEOs face more negative backlash over ethics violations compared to male leaders, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. By contrast, the study also found a reverse gender bias in the public’s perception of business leadership: women leaders faced less flack for failures of competence than men.

The findings expose some of society’s most rigidly ingrained stereotypes — that men are more competent than women, thus more culpable in business failings, and that women are more nurturing than men, which makes them more at fault in actions that harm or disappoint others.

“Women incur greater penalties for ethical transgressions because of persistent gender stereotypes that tend to categorize women as having more communal traits than men, such as being more likable, sensitive and supportive of others,” Nicole Votolato Montgomery, PhD, of the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Even in leadership settings, women are still expected to be more communal than their male counterparts.”

Montgomery and team arrived this conclusion through a series of experiments that exposed participants to fictional news articles about various scenarios of corporate failure involving either female or male leaders.

“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 said in the statement. “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.”

The exception to the team’s conclusion linking harsher judgment for competence failures to male leadership occurred in the third experiment, which couched male or female leadership within gender-stereotyped industries: child products versus automotive. In this experiment, participants judged more harshly female leaders of child product companies for competence failures; they also judged women more harshly for ethical failures in both industries.


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The findings are part of a broader slew of recent research focused both on evaluating the performance of male versus female business leaders (women tend to come out on top), as well as the public perception of male leaders vs female leaders.

The researchers of this latest study offer some suggestions for female leaders toward managing perceptions and mitigating the effects of stereotyped judgment.

“Organizational performance affects how leaders are evaluated, how they are compensated and ultimately, whether they retain their positions,” Montgomery said in the statement. “Our research suggests that when ethical failures occur, female leaders may aid their organizations’ recovery efforts by exhibiting … traits [associated with skill and competence] that are more consistent with male stereotypes.”

But this advice ignores the paradox that most female business leaders face — one that requires them to demonstrate their competence over and over, while at the same time appearing nurturing and communal. When the former outweighs the latter, women are punished, regardless of how well they have sold and/or proven their competence. A prime example of this is Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. As the author of Lean In, she was once the darling of a lip-serving corporate community keen to celebrate (if not invest in) female leaders; in the years since, she has faced the brunt of the backlash against Facebook’s many ethical violations. Though CEO Mark Zuckerberg receives criticism and scrutiny, he still has a platform; Sandberg hasn’t been heard from in ages. This may be a strategic decision on Facebook’s part (and it may be due in part to her much-criticized and largely inapplicable “lean in” advice) — but that doesn’t mean her sidelining is unrelated to her gender.

“The reaction to Sheryl Sandberg’s missteps seems far more harsh and personal than what typically transpires when a male executive errs on the job,” Kim Elsesser wrote for Forbes in 2018, when the many scandals associated with Facebook were coming to light.

However, if there’s any silver lining here, it’s this: In 2018, the two biggest reasons for corporate leadership resignations and firings, according to an analysis by auditing firm PwC, were ethical violations and misconduct, many related to the year’s #MeToo movement, which overwhelmingly accused and affected male leaders. Perhaps, slowly, we’re realizing men should be as responsible for ethical conduct as women — which means we may not be far off from considering women just as competent as men. (Or, you know, more.)

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

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