The punishment gap: how workplace mistakes hurt women and minorities most

women 2019

(Abhishek Parajuli, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Abhishek Parajuli


We all make mistakes. But do we all pay the same price for them? Or are some of us hurt more than others? Research points to a disturbing answer: women and minorities are often punished more harshly for the same mistakes compared to others. There is a punishment gap, and it is both pernicious and pervasive.

Let’s start with finance. Mark Egan at Harvard Business School looked at what happens when financial advisors make mistakes. They found that female financial advisors are 20% more likely to be fired for misconduct compared to men. They are also 30% less likely to find another job in the industry. Ethnic minority men were also punished more harshly for their mistakes than others.

And this punishment gap goes all the way to the top. Vishal Gupta, at the University of Alabama, and colleagues looked at CEOs dismissed between 2000 and 2014. They found female CEOs were 45% more likely to be fired.

It is not just finance. Another economist at Harvard looked at what happens when doctors make mistakes. It turns out when a female surgeon loses a patient there is a 34% fall in future referrals. But when a male surgeon loses a patient, there is no long-term decline in referrals. What is more, when the female surgeon makes a mistake, other women in that specialty also pay a price. But for male surgeons, the buck stops with the individual.

If there is any field where mistakes are ubiquitous, it is politics. A study by Adam Berinsky at MIT used an ingenious design: he got about 500 people to read a fictional article about a candidate involved in a sex scandal. Half the readers were told the candidate was Barack Obama. The other half were told it was John Edwards – a white Democratic candidate in 2008. Even though the sex scandal was exactly the same, those who read the article with Obama as the candidate were more likely to punish him.

This result is not unique. Researchers from Poland to Kentucky have found that women are often punished more harshly for scandals. My own research at Oxford is also starting to find that females involved in sex scandals are less likely to be forgiven than men.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking examples of the punishment gap come from education. Young girls and minority kids often fall victim to the punishment gap as well, and the effects can linger for a lifetime.

Federal civil rights investigations in the US have found evidence that minority students are punished more harshly for mistakes than their non-minority classmates even when the mistakes are exactly the same. Another study found that black students in particular were more likely to be suspended and even referred to law enforcement.

Why is this? Two studies show Americans see black boys and girls, as young as five, as being less innocent and more mature than kids from other backgrounds. As a result, they shoulder more of the blame for mistakes. We simply do not give these kids them the same assumption of innocence that all children deserve.

The punishment gap: watch the TEDx talk

So, the punishment gap is real and its pernicious effects can be felt from classrooms to boardrooms. In fact, this gap in punishment may help explain a puzzle pestering almost every organization in the world.

If you look at most corporate pyramids, they are now fairly diverse at the bottom. Over the last few decades, we have made real progress in welcoming women and minorities into organizations that were male and pale for centuries.

But, when you start going up that corporate pyramid, the diversity leaks out. For most women and minorities, corporate pyramids are really corporate plateaus. You can see this clearly if you look at, for instance, law firms in the UK: data shows about 48% of all lawyers are women. But, only 29% of partners at large law firms are women. A similar leakage of diversity can be seen across professions and countries.

 

Perhaps one reason why women and minorities struggle to climb the corporate ladder is the punishment gap: They fall further when they fail. If this is true, we must do more to level the playing field. People in positions of judgement – line managers, promotion committees and disciplinary boards – need to know about the punishment gap, so they can judge people fairly.

In the UK, at the current rate, it will take 60 years to achieve gender pay parity. That’s about two generations. I simply don’t think it is morally acceptable for us to wait that long. Focusing on the punishment gap can help us achieve a fairer world, faster. The conversations we have started having about the gender and ethnic pay gaps are very encouraging, but we must mind the punishment gap, too.

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