Women Are Judged More Harshly Than Men When They Make a Mistake — Here’s Proof

Woman thinking at desk


Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k
June 21, 2024 at 8:29PM UTC

If you feel your workplace mistakes are taken more seriously than those of your male counterparts, you’re probably not wrong, according to a recent study. 

A 2017 Harvard working paper analyzed Medicare data that covered 9,140 surgeons and discovered that following the death of a patient, male surgeons did not experience any decline in physician referrals while female surgeons received 54 percent fewer referrals following a patient’s death. What’s even more unsettling about this inequitable treatment of surgeons is that the individual female surgeons weren’t the only ones punished for their fatal outcome—all female surgeons in the specialty of a female surgeon experienced a decrease in referrals. 

Heather Sarsons, the study’s author and a postdoctoral fellow, suggested  that male surgeons avoided such consequences because they “appear to be treated as individuals.” Meanwhile, women as a whole are punished for outcomes that are not the result of their actions. 

Another recent study by Korn Ferry International found women in office settings faced similar, hyperactive scrutiny because of their gender. The study analyzed the careers of 57 women who lead large public and private companies and discovered that they frequently faced larger amounts of scrutiny than men earlier in their careers. One impact of this, according to the study, reaching the CEO status typically takes women 30% longer than it does men. 

Furthermore, the research found that what colleagues consider a "mistake" can shift based on the temperament of the woman they are judging. Women who behave in ways that are seen as being stereotypically feminine, such as calling for collaboration over championing working alone, can be chastised for not being serious enough. Meanwhile, women who practice strong assertiveness may be viewed as being unapproachable.

How do women tackle this inequality and overcome how their mistakes are perceived? 

Jane Edison Stevenson, the study’s co-author and current vice chair of Korn Ferry’s board of CEO services, said that their analysis revealed that “most [women CEOs surveyed] were “challenge junkies.”

“Rather than focusing on why more women are not CEOs, we focused on quantifying what their common success factors were...Understanding these remarkably consistent key indicators of women’s potential and, in turn, redefining needed organizational impact factors, can help change the game for both organizations and the women who will lead them,” said Edison Stevenson.

Companies can also take steps to ensure that women are being given a fair chance at success. Some potential initiatives include seeking out high-potential talent and communicating growth opportunities to them. Women can find encouragement through working with mentors who can provide support and advice, as well as career advancement. 

More on women in leadership:

Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.

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