Gimme a Break: Women Face Harsher Punishment at Work Than Men

For decades, women have been lobbying for equal pay in the workplace, but it seems that there’s something equally important that has gone unnoticed—equal punishment.

It turns out that women not only earn less than their male counterparts, but they are also subject to significantly harsher punishment for workplace transgressions. Seriously, guys?

More likely to get fired, less likely to recover

women face harsher punishment rewire pbsIn the superbly-titled academic paper “When Harry Fired Sally: The Double Standard in Punishing Misconduct,” researchers Gregor Matvos at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Amit Seru at Stanford and Mark Egan at the University of Minnesota explore how women working in the financial advisory industry are punished compared to their male coworkers for similar misconduct. (Spoiler alert: it’s, well, harsher)

The researchers studied data from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), an agency that registers financial service employees and provides public data in its BrokerCheck database. By examining advisers’ registrations from 2005 to 2015, which includes their entire employment histories and disciplinary events records, the researchers were able to determine which professionals had been disciplined and the consequences they suffered.

Following an incidence of misconduct, female financial advisers are 20 percent more likely to lose their jobs and 30 percent less likely to find new jobs relative to men working in the industry, the researchers found.

Fewer, less costly mistakes

women face harsher punishment rewire pbsWhat could explain this discrepancy? Why are women in the financial industry being punished at a significantly higher rate than men? The researchers tried to come up with reasonable explanations—for example, maybe these women’s transgressions were statistically more costly and therefore more detrimental to firms.

But that just wasn’t the case. When they dug into the data, they found that misconduct committed by male employees was not only more frequent but also more costly.

Although men commit misconduct at a rate that is three times higher than women, women face substantially harsher punishments both by the firms that employ them, and other potential employers in the industry,” the researchers wrote.

So if a woman is fired for violating a confidentiality agreement, she’s going to have a harder time finding a new job than a man who was fired for the same reason.

“In other words, even if job separation rates following misconduct were identical, these results would still suggest that punishment of misconduct is biased against women,” Matvos said.

So there’s discrimination. Now what?

women face harsher punishment rewire pbsWomen in the workplace have been talking about these issues for a while. The researchers included data from a survey of women in the financial industry, which found nearly 88 percent of women advisers believe that gender discrimination exists within the industry, 46 percent think that gender discrimination exists at their particular firm and 31 percent said that they have personally been discriminated due to their gender.

Proving this perception is something different all together—especially in relation to getting fired because many claims of wrongful termination are often baseless. That’s why the researchers compared the consequences of misconduct in both men and women—and found that women were fired more often than men.

“It is only after observing that, on average, male advisers were not fired for similar transgressions that one can detect discrimination,” Matvos said.

So what can women do in the face of this discrimination to succeed in the work place?

1. Stand out, but in the right way: Amir Goldberg, a professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, found that standing out in a way that makes people comfortable leads to success (although it probably depends on your workplace culture).

2. Think about the future: Research shows that keeping a future-oriented mindset can help you get the mental distance you need to resolve your arguments without causing harm to the relationship.

3. Train yourself to be more confident: Harvard University social scientist Amy Cuddy thinks you can train yourself to be more confident in just five minutes a day. Definitely worth a try.

Marguerite Darlington

Marguerite Darlington has worked in digital marketing and media since 1999, supporting brands like The New York Times, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, Jessica Simpson, ALDO Shoes and various independent entertainment properties. She joined Twin Cities Public Television as Rewire Director in June 2016.