Timothy Cook

When a company experiences a failure, does our judgment about the company—and the failure—vary depending on whether the company’s leader is a man or a woman?

Past research has demonstrated that women in leadership roles may receive less credit or reward than their male counterparts for a company’s success. But professors Amanda Cowen and Nicole Votolato Montgomery of the McIntire School of Commerce wanted to know whether a leader’s gender affected perceptions of a company—and a continued willingness to support that company—after a failure.

In a hypothetical scenario in which an auto company produced a defective product, the researchers found that consumers were more likely to judge a female-led company negatively for an ethical failure (knowingly selling a defective product to avoid the high cost of replacing it) than they would a male-led company. But that was not the case for a competence failure (selling that same flawed product but not being aware of the defect).

In their paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the authors note that past research has found that people have higher expectations from women in leadership when it comes to personal relations—reflecting gender stereotypes that women should be more likable and supportive of others—but lower expectations of competence. And the results of their study support that conclusion by suggesting that a female-led company is judged more negatively for losing consumers’ trust. “The results from our studies show that individuals’ perceptions of a failure, and how it affects their trust in an organization, are … a function of leader gender,” the authors write.