By Alex Fradera
A woman seeking to make a career was once faced with a road pocked with pits and divots upon which she must not stumble. Rising egalitarian attitudes have done much to remove the most visible of these hazards, but some subtle pitfalls remain. In a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Suzette Caleo of Louisiana State University explores one: the way that female managers are appraised when they treat others unjustly. The research suggests that while the sexes are treated even-handedly when they commit certain injustices, there are some things we still can’t abide from a woman.
Caleo asked 140 undergraduates (two thirds women, majority White or Asian) to appraise a male or female manager based on feedback from the manager’s subordinates. Participants were shown high ratings of the manager’s work skills, and some brief accounts of memorable workplace episodes, which were either benign or included a description of an office overhaul where the manager reallocated workspaces in a way that many staff felt was unjust.
For some participants, this injustice was in the form of the manager acting inconsistently throughout the process and relying too heavily on their own opinions. Participants understandably frowned on this, rating the manager’s overall job performance as lower and suggesting they were less deserving of rewards like a promotion or bonus. These managerial behaviours are the hallmark of “procedural injustice” – essentially, doing things unfairly and without sticking to agreed methods. What’s important here is that the participants frowned upon these infractions with equal intensity, whether they were committed by a male or female manager.
So far, so egalitarian, but a hazard was waiting in the grass. When participants read about staff complaining that the manager had been unjust in another way, by being disrespectful and ignoring the individual’s preferences, the punishments they chose for female managers were significantly harsher than those they chose for male managers, in terms of lower performance ratings and fewer recommendations for rewards. The same effect was found in a replication using a larger sample (464 participants) of workers with an average of 14 years experience: they treated female and male bosses equivalently for procedural infractions, but chose to punish women more for interpersonal offences.
In the eyes of many in society, women who commit these particular behaviours are double offending. Firstly, they violate justice norms about how people are supposed to treat each other, just as men do – and indeed, in the original experiment, participants rated male and female managers as equally unjust for both the procedural and interpersonal justice violations. But secondly, they violate gender norms about how women are supposed to be especially sensitive in their interactions.
In another experiment, Caleo found a stark way to show this. She simply asked participants to read a list of bad behaviours and rate how unacceptable each one was for a manager. When asked to have a female rather than male manager in mind, participants rated behaviours linked to interactional justice, like not caring for the well-being of subordinates, as more unacceptable.
This research shows that we evaluate some misdeeds in an egalitarian manner: participants did not use the procedural injustices as a pretext to punish the women more. But fairness in one area doesn’t prevent a double standard arising in a very similar domain. In gendered contexts, as Caleo summarises bluntly, “unfair women are less likely to be forgiven for their behaviour, whereas unfair men are more likely to be let off the hook.”