© 2023 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Women Held To Higher Ethical Standard Than Men, Study Shows


How would you answer this question? Who is more ethical, men or women? Keep your answer in mind as we welcome NPR social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: You've done a lot of work looking at studies over the years showing how unconscious and subtle biases operate in the world. Talk about how that applies to this question. Who's more ethical, men or women?

VEDANTAM: Well, I think if you ask most people, they would say women on average are more ethical than men. I know that I would certainly say that, Ari, from personal experience. And you can see this at work in many places.

I was speaking with the organizational sociologist Mary-Hunter McDonnell at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania. She told me that many years ago as a law student in an ethics class, her professor often gave the students case studies about individual lawyers and their unethical behavior.

MARY-HUNTER MCDONNELL: There was one vivid example that stands out to me where he was talking about a particularly shameless attorney. And then he disclosed that that the attorney was a female, and the room just had this audible gasp because people hadn't been expecting that the attorney in the story was a woman.

SHAPIRO: This seems to support the idea that people assume women are more ethical and unethical behavior might be more likely practiced by men.

VEDANTAM: That's right. Now, like all stereotypes, positive stereotypes can also have unintended consequences. McDonnell told me that she was curious, as a result of this common perception, whether women get held to a higher ethical standard than men do. So if you think of women as being more ethical and you come across a woman who does something unethical, do you perceive this to be a more serious problem than a man who does the very same thing?

So along with her colleagues Jessica Kennedy at Vanderbilt University and Nicole Stephens at Northwestern, McDonnell ran an experiment. They told volunteers about a hospital administrator who deliberately filed a false Medicare claim. Some of the volunteers were told the administrator responsible for this Medicare fraud was named Jack Moranti (ph). Others were told the administrator was Jane Moranti (ph). The name was the only thing different. All the other details were identical. The volunteers were then asked to recommend a jail sentence for this unethical administrator.

MCDONNELL: The average recommended sentence was around 80 days for Jack and around 130 days for Jane. So that was a difference of nearly two months of jail sentence.

SHAPIRO: So women being held to a higher ethical standard, at least in this experiment - do we have evidence that the same happens in real life?

VEDANTAM: We do have some evidence this happens in real life. The researchers went back to McDonnell's interest in the law. They tracked down disciplinary punishments handed out by the American Bar Association, Ari. They analyzed 500 cases in 33 states where a lawyer was pulled up before the Bar Association. The association has very detailed rules and codes of conduct, and during these cases, attorneys are charged with very, very specific violations.

So pooling money assigned to one client with money assigned to another client is one violation. Sleeping with a client would be another kind of violation. The researchers then analyzed the punishments handed down to lawyers who had committed identical infractions, and the punishments could be anything from an admonishment to suspension to disbarment. Here's McDonnell.

MCDONNELL: Women had a 35 percent chance of being disbarred in any given case, and men had a 17 percent chance. So that suggests that females had a 106 percent higher likelihood of being disbarred than males.

SHAPIRO: Shankar, this sounds really disheartening - that women are going to be punished more severely for the same offenses as men.

VEDANTAM: I think that's right, Ari. And it really speaks to this larger implication that even though it can seem that a positive stereotype can only have positive effects, this isn't the case. Sometimes when you put a group on a pedestal and say women in general are likely to be more ethical than the men, it can produce unintended consequences.

SHAPIRO: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and also host of NPR's podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called "Hidden Brain." Thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.