She-jerk reaction: Wrongdoing prompts harsher judgement of women than men

Gender shouldn’t matter most of the time, should it? It shouldn’t matter when we’re doing something important — like evaluating a doctor — or something mundane, like divvying up the housework. Still, it does matter.

It matters so much that one Harvard researcher found female surgeons lost 60% of their referral income per quarter after a patient death, while men only took a 30% hit. On a similar note, another study found that it’s still societally assumed women will do more housework than men, and they do.

As it turns out, expectations of behavior drive many inequalities between men and women, and they’re the reason women who behave unethically in business receive harsher judgments than men guilty of the same offense. Those are the findings of Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship David Welsh.

His research shows that people still hold stereotypical views about men and women, and those views leave female wrong-doers in the path of greater wrath.

Sugar and spice

The expectation that women will be kindly and cooperative gets drummed into us early on, starting with things like the nursery rhyme that tells us little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

“For women, there’s a communal stereotype out there,” Welsh says. That means people expect the women they encounter — including female co-workers — to be helpful and nurturing, friendly and compassionate, the good-hearted colleague who develops others, lends an ear, and shows concern.

Men, on the other hand, are expected to be “agentic.” In the work context, Welsh says that might mean you have a “powerful agent in a leadership role, telling everybody what to do, making important decisions and tough calls, being a hard negotiator, and exerting power.”

According to Welsh, women pay penalties at work just about any time they violate expected behavioral norms. “A female executive who has a powerful leadership style is perceived negatively by both women and men compared to how they’d see a male in that same scenario,” Welsh says. He adds that research has demonstrated this circumstance multiple times. “And what about the moral domain? Are there gender differences in the unethical behavior of women versus men?” he asks. The answer is “yes.”

Ethics of women and men have been examined through multiple studies and, while results have been mixed, women do appear to be more ethical than men overall.

That said, Welsh teamed up with two other researchers to see if people — especially women — are viewed more unfavorably for behavior deemed to be out of character because it doesn’t fit gender stereotypes.

With this in mind, the researchers also added to the notion of premeditation to their study. “We thought that was an important distinction here because it gets at stereotypes about behavior that is more or less agentic,” Welsh says.

Don’t even think about it

Welsh and his team define impulsive unethical behavior as “unethical actions where the thought to act did not arise before the immediate situation.” They define premeditated unethical behavior as “unethical actions where the thought occurred before the immediate situation.”

As noted earlier, agentic behavior is self-directed, forceful, and unapologetic. The agentic leader makes decisions, and that’s that. There’s no need for cooperation and compassion, two traits more closely aligned with feminine behavior than masculine acts.

Welsh invites us to think about these traits in terms of possible workplace transgressions. An employee might accidentally pick up a pen and carry it home, or he might see a nice note pad and, in the moment, decide to tuck it into his backpack. That’s impulsive unethical behavior. But what about the employee who thinks, “Gee, my kids need school supplies,” and then he decides to let his employer pay for them by raiding the supplies closet? “Those are two different acts, and they’d be perceived very differently,” Welsh says. “The premeditative act, the one where there was preplanning, deliberation, and intentional conduct that occurred, that has an agentic flavor to it,” he adds.

In other words, premeditation fits more with male characteristics.

Welsh and team also wanted to consider how premeditation impacts judgment of wrongdoing because courts consider it. “One of the reasons that premeditation is an important factor in assessing punishment is that it sheds light on the character of the individual committing the unethical act,” noted the researchers in their study write-up. “A premeditated act has been planned by the perpetrator, suggesting that is reflective of the perpetrator’s character and values. In contrast, an impulsive act that occurs spontaneously may be more reflective of an error.”

Not-so-great expectations

To see if premeditation and gender impacted others’ judgment of unethical deeds, the researchers conducted three experiments. In the first, they had 610 college undergraduates in the U.S. evaluate another student’s cheating. Half the students were told that Pat, the cheater, had found a test harder than anticipated and spontaneously decided to copy from another student’s test paper. The other half of the experiment participants were told Pat knew the test was going to be a killer. To pass, Pat came up with a plan to cheat off a friend who had a perfect 4.0 grade going in the class.

The study participants were not told if Pat was male or female. They were, however, asked to predict whether Pat was a guy or a girl. They also were asked to complete a questionnaire containing stereotypical adjectives that prior research has shown to be associated with women, and the study participants were asked to rate how well they felt these characteristics fit Pat.

Experiment results showed that the cheating was viewed through what the researchers called a “genderized lens.” Across the board, more study participants thought Pat was a man, not a woman. This was particularly true when participants were told the cheating was premeditated. With premeditation in the description of the cheating episode, 89% of study participants thought Pat was male, versus 76% who thought Pat was male when they were looking at an impulsive act. Study participants also ascribed fewer female characteristics to Pat when they thought he’d planned to cheat all along. That is, premeditation made Pat seem more masculine.

In the second and third experiments — conducted with study participants in Asia and the U.S., respectively — the researchers created a video showing an employee of a 24-hour convenience store stealing money. In the video showing an impulsive act, the employee walks into a room carrying a paper, sees the money sitting on a table by a safe and cash box, puts the paper down, and grabs the cash. In the video showing premeditation, the employee enters the room with a key, unlocks the safe, opens the cash box, and takes the money. In both videos, you can’t tell if the employee is male or female.

To manipulate the last detail — the employee’s gender — the researchers gave study participants the employee’s resume. Some resumes were for an employee named “David.” Some were for “Jennifer.” Again, the researchers also asked study participants to evaluate to what extent the behavior fit someone’s gender. Also, the researchers asked participants to state the severity of a punishment that was appropriate by picking among a few options.

“The key finding here is that the female perpetrator who engaged in premeditated unethical behavior received the most severe punishment,” Welsh says.

With the third experiment, the researchers used the same faux “surveillance video,” but this time they told study participants that David or Jennifer took the money to pay for his or her sick child’s medical bills. This added information made the differences in judgment and punishment for women and men disappear. “Women were no longer punished more severely than men when we provided them with this communal rationale for why the unethical behavior occurred,” Welsh notes. The punishment for women was slightly less severe than the punishment for men.

These findings suggest stereotypes prevail, and they impact how we react to another’s transgressions.

“I think pretty much everybody would look at this and say, ‘Wait a minute, it’s unfair for a female employee to be punished more than a male employee for engaging in the same conduct,’” he notes, but still, it happens.

“Women pay an extra penalty for premeditated unethical behavior,” he concludes. “They’ve not only violated moral norms, but they’ve also violated a societal norm so, in a sense, they’re made to pay twice.”

By Betsy Loeff