Category Science Radar
29 June 2022

Public legitimization of gender discrimination at the workplace – Why it seems more legitimate to favor women in organizational decisions

Gender discrimination at work is an issue that is widely discussed in the media, politics, literary research and society. It is a highly-discussed topic because many people have had a certain experience with it. Whether it is being discriminated against yourself or watching colleagues being discriminated against at the workplace - the number of people experiencing gender discrimination at work is high all around the globe. It applies to all areas, especially  recruitment, pay and promotion. However, TUM School of Management professor Benedikt Schnurr from the Department of Marketing and his colleague Christoph Fuchs found that previous research on this prominent topic has not captured the full picture. They asked themselves: “How does the public react, when they observe that an organization discriminates against workers based on their gender?”


How legitimate do people evaluate decisions that discriminate against workers based on their gender?

In their recent study Public Reactions to Instances of Workplace Gender Discrimination that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied by the American Psychological Association, Schnurr and Fuchs examined how legitimate people judge decisions that discriminate against individual workers based on their gender. “Usually”, Prof. Schnurr explains, “it should not matter who is being discriminated against, whether man or woman. Any discrimination is in principle a no go!” However, their first finding was that both men and women find it way more legitimate when it was the man and not the woman who was discriminated against. Furthermore, compared to men, women find it much more legitimate to discriminate against men rather than women. Results that were not totally surprising, but also not completely reasonable for Schnurr.


Why discriminating against men was found to be more legitimate

Schnurr wanted to get to the bottom of these findings. He explains: “In theory, there are two ways in which one can define justice for oneself. Justice can be aimed at a single individual, but there is also a collective sense of justice that takes into account not only the individual, but the total population of the group at stake. And clearly, women are the disadvantaged group, the gender that has been and still is mostly discriminated against, in many areas. The explanation, why women react much more strongly to discrimination is precisely because women take the collective situation of female workers more into account.” Women, as members of the disadvantaged group, tend to justify decisions favoring their group members by considering more than men, how their gender is treated in the business world in general.

Regarding the individual workers, such decisions might seem unfair, as one person is not to blame for the discrimination of a whole group. Nevertheless, these decisions were justified by the participants of the study as they were made on behalf of the disadvantaged social group. The decision of an organization favoring a woman because of her gender can therefore be seen as compensation for women being generally underrepresented and collectively disadvantaged in the workplace.


Gender equality at work: A highly polarized discourse

It is needless to say that the opinions on gender discrimination at the workplace are highly polarized. Therefore, one goal of the study was to understand better why this discussion is so converse and how these opinions can be influenced and approximated. Speaking for organizations, Schnurr argues that it is difficult to find the right way to aim for gender equality. His study primarily means to neutrally describe the current circumstances: “It is quite a philosophical question whether someone may be discriminated against in favor of the minority group. Can one injustice be made up for with another injustice? I find it relatively difficult to form an opinion on this. What we show is what has a general influence on how legitimate individual decisions are rated.”


Collective or individual justice: The focus is what matters

How people think about the legitimacy of gender discrimination at work depends on different influences. First, it depends on the representation of female workers in the industry. As an example, Schnurr mentions the tech industry, where women are clearly outnumbered by men. In such industries, quotas that favor women are easier to justify. Second, it matters whether people generally believe that women are disadvantaged in the workplace. If people do not believe that women are discriminated against, they will not rate their preference more legitimate than that of their male competitors.


Mainly, people’s attitude towards the legitimacy of gender discrimination is influenced by their focus on the individual or the collective. Hence, Schnurr investigates that, given different focus areas, people’s thinking of legitimacy can be influenced - a tool that could be helpful for the decision-making process in politics. Assuming that an organization wanted to legitimize the decision that men are discriminated against in favor of the underrepresented group, people would have to be led to focus on the needs of the collective. In contrast, if an organization wanted the public to feel that discrimination in general is not legitimate, whether it concerns men or women, they needed people to empathize more with the individual. These findings provide explanations to current political issues that could be used to converge polarized opinions in the discourse.


Further studies on gender discrimination in progress

Based on the relevance of the topic, Schnurr is currently researching on two further studies depicting different issues of gender discrimination. One study deals with the question, if people prefer buying products that were created by men or women. Does the gender of a manufacturer influence the customer's purchasing decision? Schnurr’s second project investigates how consumers are influenced by the number of female workers in the management of a company. The studies could help explore the representation of gender discrimination in the workplace in general, and step by step to achieve more equality in the working environment.