Does Gender Matter in How Employees React to Witnessing Mistreatment?

Topic(s): counterproductive work behavior, fairness, gender
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Am I Next?: Men and Women’s Divergent Justice Perceptions Following Vicarious Mistreatment
Authors: E.M. David, S.D. Volpone, D.R. Avery, L.U. Johnson, L. Crepeau
Reviewed by: Katherine Facteau

Gender discrimination is still prevalent in today’s workplace. Although a large body of research shows that mistreatment has negative implications for the target employee, less is known about how employees may react to witnessing mistreatment. New research (David et al., 2023) investigates how perceptions of injustice following the observation of mistreatment may differ depending on the witness’s own gender and gender similarity to the target. They argue that being similar in gender to the target of mistreatment may seem more threatening to the witness, resulting in stronger reactions.


The researchers conducted three studies. In Study 1, participants read about an employee who was up for a promotion who was being mistreated by a supervisor, for example, by being interrupted. They found that when participants were women, or the same gender as the fictitious employee, they had even lower perceptions of organizational justice.

Study 2 utilized data from the military to examine why this may be the case. They found that people who witnessed mistreatment perceived an overall “gender mistreatment climate,” which in turn resulted in more perceptions of general injustice. Again, this effect was stronger when the target was the same gender as the witness. Lastly, in Study 3, the researchers found that there were two primary ways that people formed beliefs about mistreatment climates: cognitively and emotionally. Interestingly, they found that women witnessing another woman’s mistreatment formed climate and justice perceptions more strongly through emotional reactions.


Organizations should be aware that even if employees have not experienced mistreatment, they can still be affected by it. Managers should create open door policies and outlets for reporting such incidents of mistreatment. Further, considering that leaders may react more strongly to mistreatment of their own gender, there should be gender representation at higher organizational levels to ensure that mistreatment receives an appropriate response.


David, E. M., Volpone, S. D., Avery, D. R., Johnson, L. U., & Crepeau, L. (2023). Am I next? Men and women’s divergent justice perceptions following vicarious mistreatment. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.

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