As reported recently, Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO, and presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, are both facing tough questions at the moment – Mayer for what some consider to be a series of ill-advised acquisitions and Clinton for using a private email server and for accepting some very generous speaking fees. And this coincidence of criticism has brought into sharper focus the idea that women leaders pay a higher price for their mistakes than male leaders do.
Indeed, to many women in leadership positions, it probably seems not so much an idea as a truism.
But research suggests that the reality may be a bit more complex. It seems that male leaders can come in for some pretty harsh criticism too if – and it’s a significant ‘if’ – they are operating in what is generally considered to be a female preserve. In other words, the determining factor is not whether the leader is male or female but whether he or she is challenging gender stereotyping by performing that particular leadership role.
So a level playing field for men and women?
Not exactly. Because, as the research points out, there are many, many leadership roles that are typically thought of as ‘male’ but very, very few that are thought of as ‘female’. Any advance on the only one the researchers could come up with – ‘president of a women’s college’?
So the conclusion is that, whatever the nuances highlighted by this research, most women leaders are still likely to pay a higher price for their mistakes than men. We still have a way to go.