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Amanda P. Cowen and Nicole V. Montgomery, Associate Professors at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, tackle business issues that carry significant, complex social implications. Their recent and ongoing study about the relationship between CEO gender and public opinion during times of crisis illustrates the type of innovative and interdisciplinary work directly enabled by dedicated research funding at McIntire.
Cowen, the William Stamps Farish Professor of Free Enterprise and a 2017 All-University Teaching Award recipient, examines social dynamics and their ability to shape judgment and action in organizational contexts. Her interests have led her to conduct several studies about CEOs and crisis management. Her colleague, Montgomery—the C. Coleman McGehee Professor of Commerce—analyzes consumer behavior, decision making, and brand commitment.
Thanks to the support Cowen and Montgomery received in summer 2016 from the Walker Fund for Academic Excellence and the Davis R. Ledford Faculty Fellowship Fund, respectively, the two fused their areas of expertise to create an experimental study exploring how the gender of a CEO affects people’s perceptions of that CEO when the organization he or she leads suffers product failure. The study investigates how those opinions then influence consumers’ willingness to purchase products from those companies in the future.
Cowen and Montgomery collected responses from focus groups presented with fictional articles about corporate missteps. The stories were identical except for the name of the CEO, who was identified as either Adam Clayton or Abigail Clayton. The resulting data revealed noticeably different reactions to and judgment of the corporate leaders.
“It turns out that gender does matter, but it depends on what caused the failure,” said Cowen. The male CEO in the article suffered a stronger backlash than his female counterpart for an unintentional error—or what is sometimes called “honest incompetence.” Apologizing elicited a more severe response, and the male CEO received less criticism when denying a failure. Interestingly, the female CEO was more readily blamed when the event concerned a moral error, and consumer reaction was harsh if she denied any wrongdoing. In contrast to her male counterpart, participants tended to be more lenient if she offered an apology. The study exposes the pitfalls of stereotypes and some of the important challenges women leaders face.
“Our research is now headed toward trying to understand these different stakeholder groups and the role that gender may play in shaping their perceptions,” Montgomery said. “We hope to identify recommendations that can benefit organizations and their leaders.”
Noting the role of private support in their study, Cowen added that the McIntire School attracts this kind of funding because of its longstanding tradition of examining business issues beyond rigid limitations: “As with everything we do here at McIntire,” Cowen said, “understanding is going to come from working across disciplines, combining insights from governance and organizational behavior with the latest thinking from marketing and corporate communications.”
Generous contributions by key members of the McIntire community provide the crucial resources necessary to facilitate creative approaches to scholarship. Strong partnerships with donors enhance the School by fostering a culture of inventive research, cutting-edge study, and exceptional business education programs.
This article was originally written for the UVIMCO Annual Report.