Are women punished more for bad behaviour at work?

Apparently, we hold female workers to higher ethical standards, which means we're tougher on them when they slip up.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 09 Jun 2016
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Your Career

As if women getting paid less for doing the same work as men weren't bad enough, apparently they're also treated more harshly for the same misdemanours. Talk about adding insult to injury.

That's what organisational sociologist Mary-Hunter McDonnell at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues found out when carrying out research to assess whether women are held to a higher ethical standard than men. And more concerningly, whether they received stricter punishment for unethical behaviour. 

They conducted three studies; the first asked respondents to rate a hypothetical lawyer on measures of morality and when the individual was identified as female, participants expected more in terms of ethical traits from her.

The second asked respondents to decide to what extent a hospital manager who made a deliberate error should be punished. The average recommended sentence was around 80 days for the male and 130 for the female, when the gender of the hypothetical individuals was the only change in the scenario.

The researchers then looked into disciplinary punishments handed out by the American Bar Association and analysed 500 cases in 33 states where a lawyer was pulled up before the Bar Association and charged with specific violations.

Comparing punishments dished out to those who had committed identical infractions showed significant differences. Women had a 35% chance of being disbarred in any given case, while men had a 17% chance. McDonnell said ‘with all control variables held to their means’ females have a 106% higher likelihood of being disbarred than males.

So as well as the ongoing trouble around the gender pay gap and dearth of women in executive positions, we should also be concerned about the unfairness of punishments meted out to women. Good to know...

Needless to say, seeing your male co-worker skip away with a tut and a headshake from your boss after he made the very same mistake you did - only you had the book thrown at you - is hardly going to lead to a more harmonious workforce.

At the very least, this research serves as a reminder that tackling unconscious bias remains an important – though difficult – task in the workplace. Iris Bohnet's What Works is worth checking out here  a handy manual about promoting gender in the workplace, which is up front about what works, and what doesn't.

Read more: Disrupting gender stereotypes

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