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Women Are Punished More for Being Assholes at Work

New research has found that professional women are held to higher ethical standards than their male colleagues, and when they break the rules they're more harshly punished.
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It's common knowledge that women are expected to be emotionally warm, by smiling and being nice. But new research has taken a close look at the way women are held to higher ethical standards than men are. Specifically, a series of three studies were conducted to observe the differences between ethical standards for professional women and men, as well as any differences between the punishments doled out to both groups. In addition to being held to a higher standard generally, women were found to be punished more harshly for the same ethics violations that men committed.


These studies were designed by a team of female researchers led by an organizational sociologist named Mary-Hunter McDonnell of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In an interview with Broadly, McDonnell explained that prior research into gender inequality in the workplace has focused generally on rewards, rather than punishment; prominent examples include male actors and athletes being paid more than their female colleagues. "The research tends to focus on rewards because they're salient, and that explains some of the gender gaps in those professions," McDonnell said. But while such research illustrates the difficulty women experience climbing the corporate ladder, McDonnell wanted to examine how women are pushed down that ladder as well.

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McDonnell became interested in finding out whether professional women were punished more severely for unethical behavior during a class in law school. Her professor told a story about the unethical practices of a lawyer. When it was revealed that the lawyer was a woman, there was a "collective gasp" in the room.

"It seemed to provoke an especially punitive response from everyone," McDonnell said. "It occurred to me that everyone in the room had been picturing a male, just because the [professor] was describing someone unethical."

Measuring discrimination like this is difficult because it's not usually conscious, McDonnell said. "It comes through in unintended biases that people have, that they don't necessarily realize they're handing out discriminatory outcomes." What's more, the pattern of discrimination does not become visible without the controlled analysis of a large sample of data.


To combat this difficulty, McDonnell conducted three studies complementary to each other: They aimed to learn if women are indeed held to a higher ethical standard; whether women received stricter punishment for unethical behavior than men; and whether the gender of the person(s) who were doing the punishing would affect the severity of the punishment given to women.

Specifically, the first study asked participants to rate a hypothetical attorney on measures of ethicality; when the attorney was identified as female, respondents expected more ethical traits from her. The second study asked participants to weigh in on how severely a hospital manager who had made a significant error should be punished; the error was categorized as either accidental or intentional, and the manager as either male or female. When the manager was female, respondents said she should be punished more harshly.

The results of the third study show that the gender of the punisher is significant. For this portion, researchers analyzed a database of lawyers who had been punished by the American Bar Association for breaking their ethical standards. In addition to supporting their first two hypotheses, the findings of Study 3 showed that when there were fewer women on the judges' panel—when the number of women dropped one standard deviation below the mean—a female attorney is more than two times as likely to be disbarred. But when there were more women on the judges' panel, punishment was the same for both sexes. "This result suggests that greater representation of women among decision-makers who allot punishment can temper disparate punishments allotted to male and female professionals," the study reads.

Tristan Bridges is a masculinity scholar and a professor of sociology at the College at Brockport State University of New York. In an interview with Broadly, Bridges said that McDonnell's findings are consistent with previous research into the ways people are punished. "When people transgress some social norm or expectation in a way that is inconsistent with how we expect 'people like them' to act, sometimes that can result in harsher penalties," he said.

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During our interview, Bridges brought up prior research conducted by a sociologist named Kristen Shilt. He explained that Shilt's work studying female-to-male transgender men offers deeper understanding of the reality of unequal treatment between men and women in the workplace. "Transgender men were able to recount, in vivid detail, for instance, how coworkers treated them differently after they became socially recognized as men," Bridges said. Spoiler alert: They were treated better after transitioning to male.

McDonnell and her colleagues believe that there may be grave consequences for this kind of systemic discrimination. "When punished unfairly, people's job performance, commitment, and organizational citizenship behavior decline, while counterproductive behaviors increase," the study authors write. "If women systematically experience harsher punishment than men following ethical violations, this could help to explain well-documented disparities in pay, advancement, and job satisfaction."