How Can We Close the Gender Punishment Gap?

By Brett Beasley

New research provides a clearer picture than ever of the "gender punishment gap," and it offers practical suggestions for working to close it.

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It was a crucial moment in the women’s final of the 2018 US Open. Serena Williams had just lost the first set to rival Naomi Osaka of Japan. Williams was hoping to mount a comeback when suddenly the umpire issued her a code violation, claiming she had received advice from her coach who was sitting in the stands. Williams disagreed strongly. She confronted the umpire and eventually called him a "thief."

The umpire responded by issuing another code violation and penalized Williams one game. “Do you know how many men do things that are [...] much worse than that?” Williams protested. The penalty cost Williams her lead in the set. Osaka went on to win the set, the match, and the Grand Slam title.

Was Williams treated unfairly? Was the penalty "sexist" as she claimed? Many fans and expert players like Billie Jean King rushed to Williams's defense. Others disagreed, pointing out that Williams's actions were inappropriate. The debacle revealed that while we are aware of some gender gaps—especially pay gaps—both in sports and in business, a gender punishment gap can be hard to see and even harder to prove.

We need data to compare offenses, punishments, and harms in order to determine whether and how men and women are treated differently. And that data has been lacking—until now.

Proof of the Gender Punishment Gap

Recently, Mark Egan (Harvard), along with Gregor Matvos (Northwestern) and Amit Seru (Stanford) analyzed data on gender, misconduct, and punishment from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which contained all registered financial service employees (1.2 million). They narrowed down the data to focus on those who committed misconduct (7%). They controlled for variables such as role type, misconduct type, and location using a linear probability model. This allowed them to compare "apples to apples," so to speak, to see if women were treated differently from men after committing similar kinds of misconduct.

They discovered that the gender punishment gap was very real and quite large indeed. Women who committed misconduct were 20% more likely to be fired than their male counterparts.

In addition, women's misconduct hurt their career more than men's misconduct hurt theirs. Sometimes when men commit misconduct, Egan says, "their employment prospects are pretty good; they just move across the street and work for a different firm. We find that it is a drastically different story for women." He and his colleagues found that female financial advisers were 30% less likely to find new jobs after committing misconduct compared with male advisers.

This gap in punishment persists even though, as Egan and his colleagues found, women tended to present less of a risk to their organizations: Misconduct on the part of women was 20% less costly than men's misconduct and women were also less likely to be repeat offenders.

Fortunately, Egan and his colleagues were able not just to reveal the gender punishment gap but were also able to gain insight about what it will take to close the gap.

Put it in Practice

Take a closer look at the gap.

To start to close the gender punishment gap, Egan says awareness is key. Unlike the gender pay gap, the gender punishment gap is "a less salient form of discrimination" and "it's possible that the parties involved aren't even aware of it,” he says. Armed with the knowledge that groups often punish women more harshly for offenses, we are better prepared to recognize unfair treatment and to avoid it in our own organizations.

Promote diversity on leadership teams.

Egan and his colleagues conclude that the gender punishment gap exists not because men consciously intend to harm women or treat them unfairly, but rather because, like many groups, male-dominated leadership teams tend to show favoritism toward members of their in-group. When teams have little or no women represented, they tend to treat men especially leniently.

This suggests that the gender punishment gap will not disappear until corporate boards and leadership teams are more diverse. Fortunately, many companies and investors are already calling for greater diversity. Closing the gender punishment gap could bring an added benefit to this effort.

Use ignorance to your (ethical) advantage.

While we are on the way to greater diversity on corporate boards and leadership teams, we can also take steps to make fairer decisions in the meantime. Blind assessments and third-party reviews of important decisions can help strip out information that activates our biases. And even in the absence of these measures, research suggests we can approximate them imaginatively by placing ourselves behind a mental "veil of ignorance."

Data is a powerful tool for living and leading more ethically. On the one hand, it can help us see the truth and identify forms of harm and unfairness that would otherwise remain invisible to us. And on the other hand, it can help keep us engaged and accountable as we work, however gradually, to create real, lasting, and measurable change.



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