You've Come a Long Way…Maybe: How Moral Emotions Trigger Backlash Against Women Leaders

Victoria L. Brescoll, Tyler G. Okimoto, Andrea C. Vial

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite the progress American women have made in other arenas, they still remain underrepresented in top leadership positions in both the public and private sectors, thus contributing to their marginalized status in these domains. Although people do not expect to encounter women in positions of power, a solely cognitive process cannot fully account for the negative interpersonal characterizations and poor leadership evaluations (i.e., backlash) that female leaders disproportionately receive. Rather, recent evidence suggests that because female leaders are seen as gender norm deviants who threaten the gender status hierarchy, the backlash they encounter more likely constitutes a motivated process whereby perceivers’ negative evaluations stem from a desire to maintain the status quo (i.e., gender inequality). Here, we expand on this work by proposing that a desire to defend the gender hierarchy causes people to feel negative moral emotions when encountering powerful women who display dominance and/or agency which, in turn, causes backlash effects against such individuals. Study 1 finds that morally laden negative affect explains why evaluators penalize dominant female leaders, but not dominant male leaders. Studies 2 and 3 then manipulate this mediator via the use of use disgust primes. Given that embodied disgust amplifies moral judgment severity, we hypothesized that if moral emotions underlie gender backlash, enhanced feelings of disgust should result in harsher penalties for leaders in gender-incongruent roles than those in gender-congruent roles as only the former violate core gender norms that undermine the status quo. Indeed, compared to a neutral prime, disgust primes (taste in Study 2, visual in Study 3) resulted in lower leadership evaluations and liking of only the gender deviant targets. We discuss the implications of these findings for organizational interventions and female leaders’ impression management strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)144-164
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Social Issues
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'You've Come a Long Way…Maybe: How Moral Emotions Trigger Backlash Against Women Leaders'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this