Following an ethical failure, women chief executives tend to experience a harsher backlash from consumers, who are less likely to continue buying their products, than their male counterparts, according to an American Psychological Association report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Interestingly, though, how consumers respond to competence failures — such as faulty products — depends more on the industry than the CEO’s gender, the study found. It was based on three experiments designed to test consumer perceptions of women CEOs.
Female leaders are generally penalized less for competence failures, the authors determined, unless they occur in an industry that’s viewed as “female-dominated,” such as children's products. In that case, women face harsher blowback than their male-led counterparts, just as they do in ethical failures.
In part, that’s because women executives are often expected to be likable, sensitive and supportive of others, the study said; essentially, consumers expect women-led companies to be more ethical, but less competent.
"Even in leadership settings, women are still expected to be more communal than their male counterparts,” wrote the study’s authors, University of Virginia’s Nicole Votolato Montgomery and Amanda P. Cowen.
Montgomery and Cowen also pointed to the 2016 presidential election as an example of the morality issue women face. Though President Trump made more false statements during the campaign, they wrote, Hillary Clinton was perceived as more untrustworthy by voters.
“This is consistent with more rigorous work showing that women incur greater penalties for ethical transgressions than their male counterparts,” they wrote.
Women sit at the helm of just 33 Fortune 500 companies, or a mere 6.6 percent.