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Real Men Don't Make Mistakes


by Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Real Men Don't Make Mistakes

Study shows male leaders in masculine jobs receive more backlash for errors than female leaders

By Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Even the most competent leaders make errors at work, but the type of job and the gender of the leader can determine how those errors are perceived.

According to recent research, male leaders who make mistakes in traditionally masculine work settings (i.e., construction) are judged more negatively than female leaders who make the same mistakes. However, in traditionally feminine jobs (i.e., nursing), both men and women may be held to similar standards of performance by social observers.

Even when both male and female leaders make the same type of mistake in a masculine field, men are viewed as less competent, effective, and desirable to work for, explained SIOP member Christian Thoroughgood, a doctoral candidate of industrial and organizational psychology at The Pennsylvania State University.

After taking a class on leadership with Sam Hunter at Penn State, Thoroughgood and his coauthor, Katina Sawyer, wondered whether leader errors are perceived differently depending on the gender of the leader, so they decided to design a study to find out. Thoroughgood, Sawyer, and Hunter presented their findings at the 27th SIOP Annual Conference in San Diego in April.

In their study, 300 undergraduates were randomly assigned to read fictional e-mails where employees discussed a series of leader errors in either a construction or nursing context. The study focused on two types of errors, task and relationship, Thoroughgood said. Although task errors concern mistakes related to gathering information, problem solving, planning and organizing, and decision making, relationship errors are associated with employee interactions, including mistakes related to supporting, recognizing and rewarding, and mentoring and developing, he explained.

“Given societal gender roles, men tend to be perceived as more task competent than women, whereas women tend to be viewed as more relationship competent than men,” Thoroughgood said.

Based on these gender roles, it was hypothesized that men who make task errors in masculine fields and women who make relationship errors in feminine fields would be perceived more negatively than their opposite-sexed counterparts. However, results of the study showed that only male leaders were seen as less competent, effective, and desirable to work for when they made both task and relationship errors within the construction setting compared to female leaders.

“This may be because people think women can’t do the job anyway, so when they make an error in a masculine context, they aren’t punished as much as their male counterparts,” Thoroughgood said. “Men may experience more backlash in this context because they are supposed to be good at highly masculinized jobs, as well as leadership roles more broadly. This incongruity between the leader’s behavior and their societal gender role may be the cause of observers’ more negative perceptions.”

However, when both men and women committed task and relationship errors in the hospital job, there was no significant difference in how they were perceived by participants.

It might be assumed that women in a traditionally feminine job would be judged more harshly for making errors, but Thoroughgood and his coauthors found this was not the case. This may be due to women being seen as more competent in traditionally feminine work contexts but still less leader-like relative to their male counterparts. These conflicting stereotypes may result in more balanced performance expectations, and thus more equal perceptions, of male and female leaders who make errors in traditionally feminine work settings, he added.

Overall, Thoroughgood explained the research highlights the power of gender norms on work-related outcomes for both men and women.

“While traditionally, gender research has focused on outcomes for women at work—and rightfully so, given all of the adversity they have faced due to stereotype—this paper highlights the fact that gender stereotypes are dangerous for both men and women at work,” he explained.

Thoroughgood said he and Sawyer hope this paper will call to action both men and women to attempt to break down rigid gender categories and stereotypes at work, so that both genders can be judged according to their objective performance without having evaluations skewed by group membership.

Leaders can use this research to improve their employees’ perceptions of them. Despite any gender, task, or job differences, employees still tend to perceive the leader as less competent in their ability when they make an error, Thoroughgood said.

“When employees are aware of an error, they are less willing to follow the leader because it is seen as a failing on the leader’s part to cultivate success,” he explained.

The best thing a leader can do is to focus on the type of error they make and improve upon it. For example, a leader will likely have a tough time making up for relationship errors by being more task focused.

“Go the extra mile to make up for it and you will succeed,” Thoroughgood said.

For more information, contact Christian Thoroughgood at Christian.thoroughgood@gmail.com.