Hard Won and Easily Lost: The Fragile Status of Leaders in Gender-Stereotype-Incongruent Occupations

Men who are employed in jobs that are strongly associated with women, and vice versa, are more strongly penalized for making mistakes than those in positions associated with their own gender.


As compared with men, women are not only more likely to hit the “glass ceiling” where their career advancement is stalled, but also to fall from a “glass cliff,” that is to backslide from the degree of advancement they had previously attained.

In this study, the authors examine whether gender-incongruent leaders are judged more harshly on the basis of small mistakes than leaders in gender typical roles. They implemented a randomized controlled trial testing participants’ perceptions of gender-congruent (male police chiefs and female presidents of women’s colleges) and gender-incongruent (female police chiefs and male presidents of women’s colleges) subjects, which they read about in scenarios where those subjects did or did not make mistakes in performing their jobs. In particular, the authors examine whether this effect is driven by reactions to individuals in roles not typically associated with people of their gender, rather than by bias against one gender or another.


When they made mistakes, people in gender-incongruent jobs—female police chiefs and male women’s college presidents—were ascribed a lower status and seen as less competent than their gender-congruent counterparts.

  • In the scenarios in which the subject of the narrative did not make any mistakes in their job, study participants accorded similar status to male and female police chiefs and male and female presidents of women’s colleges.
  • When the subject made a mistake, study participants accorded less status to and judged as less competent female police chiefs and male presidents of women’s colleges, than those in gender-congruent jobs.
  • Men and women were penalized at similar rates for gender-incongruence.

In short, the study found that people who are employed in an occupation that is strongly associated with the opposite gender are penalized more harshly for making mistakes. Their status and competence is fragile and more easily revoked than that of people who are employed in occupations that are strongly associated with their own gender.


The authors conduct an experiment with 75 men and 127 women. Participants were randomly assigned to read a scenario describing a subject’s occupation, and a situation where he/she did or did not make a mistake. The authors varied the subject’s gender, job performance (mistake vs. no mistake) and occupation (gender congruent vs. gender incongruent). The occupations were president of a women’s college and police chief. In the mistake scenario, the subject dispatched too few police officers to a protest rally. In the no mistake scenario, he/she dispatched an adequate number of officers. The authors calculated an index of status conferral assessing how much status, power, independence, and respect a candidate deserves at work. A second index of competence was developed based on participants’ ratings of the subject on a competent-incompetent and knowledge-ignorance scale.

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