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Blame is attributed differently to male and female leaders, study finds

New research has found female leaders are given the benefit of the doubt when they do not achieve positive results, with failures put down to bad luck.

However for male leaders, negative outcomes were blamed on selfish decision making. 

The study, by researchers at the University of East Anglia, University of Melbourne and Monash University in Australia, looked at how leaders' decisions were evaluated and whether gender plays a part in these evaluations. 

Though the evaluators’ biases seemed to favour women, the researchers warned the discrepancy could be due to benevolent sexism. 

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Nisvan Erkal from the University of Melbourne said: “One interpretation of our results is that male evaluators may see the need to treat female leaders more favourably, therefore giving them a greater benefit of the doubt in the face of failure.    

“A possible explanation for this is benevolent sexism, which tends to lead to behaviours toward women that are often characterised as prosocial. It is driven by the stereotype that women need to be protected.”  

Katherine Grice, co-founder of women’s business coaching company Topbird, said the study highlights the complexity of gender bias. 

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “We need to be careful to not take findings like these at face value as we can’t generalise gender bias. It is vast and completely depends on the culture and the sector of the organisation.” 

Grice said leaders must be trained to deliver excellent results and employee experiences, regardless of their gender.  

She added: “If leadership skills and development are an integral part of an organisation, you will see that shine through – be that in male or female leaders.  

“In organisations where leadership isn’t paid much attention to, productivity inevitably goes down. This isn’t to do with gender bias, but the quality of leadership that employees receive, and the investment in their development of these types of skills. 

Grice said employers must ask difficult questions about whether they are treating male and female leaders equally.  

She said: “Businesses should make sure that they’re constantly asking questions to make any blind spots get gradually smaller.  

“Make sure you’re getting responses from a range of different people – different genders, sexualities, ethnicities etc.  

“Cover as many areas as possible so that you can do your best to treat those people as they would like to be treated.” 

The full study can be downloaded here.