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No Room for Error With Sex Stereotypes

• October 01, 2010 • 5:00 AM

For men and women in leadership positions usually occupied by the other gender, a single mistake is seen as evidence of incompetence.

If you’re drawn to a high-profile line of work generally associated with the other gender, rest easy. Newly published research finds people will respect your choice and accept you in that role.

That is, so long as you don’t make a mistake.

That’s the cautionary conclusion of a team of scholars led by Victoria Brescoll of the Yale School of Management. Writing in the journal Psychological Science, they report that while gender stereotyping may be less overt than in previous generations, those who buck the accepted norms are given only a limited opportunity to succeed.

“A gender-congruent leader’s competence is assumed,” the researchers write, “but for a gender-incongruent leader, salient mistakes create ambiguity and call the leader’s competence into question, which in turn leads to a loss of status.”

While this effect has been noted in the past, the phenomenon has generally been blamed on bias against women in leadership positions. Brescoll and her colleagues report that it also applies to men whose career choices don’t conform to sexual stereotypes.

Their conclusions were drawn from a study of 75 men and 127 women, who read one of two scenarios about a protest rally. Half read an account in which the leader in question dispatched too few officers to the rally; violence erupted, and 25 people received serious injuries. The other half read an alternative account in which the leader dispatched an appropriate number of officers to the event, and order was maintained.

For half the students who read each scenario, the leader was described in gender-congruent terms: either as a male police chief or the female president of a women’s college. For the other half, the leader was either a female police chief or male head of a women’s college.

After reading the scenario, each participant filled out a study designed to assess how much status, power, independence and respect the leader in question deserved.

“When they did not make any mistake, male and female police chiefs, along with male and female women’s college presidents, were accorded similar status,” the researchers write. “However, when female police chiefs and male women’s college presidents made a mistake, they were accorded significantly less status, and viewed as less competent, than their gender-congruent counterparts.”

Brescoll and her colleagues repeated the study placing females in two additional male-dominated careers: CEO of an aerospace engineering firm and chief judge. “The results fully replicated the current study,” they write, “suggesting that the specific profession in which the mistake occurs may be less important than whether the target’s gender is congruent with the job.”

Could this help explain the poor poll numbers for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? According to a CBS News poll taken in March, she has an unfavorable rating of 37 percent, compared to a 23 percent unfavorable rating for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. For a variety of reasons, most Americans are frustrated by Congress right now, but the female leader — the one in a gender-incongruent role — has seen her ratings sink much lower than her male counterpart.

“Women who are successful in male domains not only are seen as unlikeable, but are also viewed as less competent than their gender-congruent counterparts after making a single mistake,” the researchers conclude. “Thus the high status achieved by some men and women in gender-incongruent occupations can be unstable, vulnerable and ultimately fragile.”

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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