The XX Factor

Women May Avoid Business Careers to Maintain Ethical Integrity

A Bernie Madoff Halloween costume

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Among the most senior executives at investment banks, fewer than five percent are women. Recently Sheryl Sandburg, Facebook’s COO and the author of Lean In, has drawn added attention to the deficit of women in business, pointing to one potential factor: Many women “leave before they leave,” mentally disengaging from work in preparation for family responsibilities. Perhaps more important, women also face gender stereotypes and backlash for showing too much ambition. New research suggests yet another factor: Women are less willing than men to make the ethical compromises often required in business. 

Jessica Kennedy of Wharton and Laura Kray of Berkeley report on three studies in a paper forthcoming in Social Psychology and Personality Science. In the first study, subjects read 14 vignettes describing ethical compromises in a business context. Values seen as sacred, such as honesty, loyalty, or the well-being of others, were traded off for the secular values of money or status. An executive secures a big bonus by using a cheap ingredient in a cancer drug, knowing it will kill some people. A project manager takes credit for the work of a subordinate who stayed late at the office. Subjects rated how objectionable the behavior was, and how much business sense it made. Compared with men, women found the acts more offensive, and said they made less business sense.

“I have certainly experienced multiple situations,” Kray says, “where I have seen male colleagues turn a blind eye to ethically questionable situations in the workplace, whereas women leaned in by either reporting it or questioning it.”

How might gender differences in moral sensibility affect career decisions? In the second study, college students read descriptions of three jobs in consulting and finance. The information included responsibilities and salary. For a third of the subjects, the text also described an ethical issue he or she might face. For instance, the firm sometimes considers investing in other companies that have morally questionable business practices—child labor and whatnot. And they were told that the norm within the firm was to do whatever it takes to make a profit. Another third of the subjects read about the ethical issues but learned that the firm expected employees to do what is right. The control subjects didn’t see anything about ethics. Everyone rated their moral reservations about working for the companies, and their interest in the jobs.

The men were equally interested no matter what they heard about ethics. And the women were just as interested as the men when there was little ethical compromise expected of them or the topic didn’t come up. But when the norm was to be evil, they showed less interest in the jobs than men—a difference accounted for by greater moral reservation.  

The authors suggest gender roles may explain why women have more qualms about ethical sacrifices. Generally, girls are expected to be sociable, whereas boys are expected to be successful. It’s TLC vs. Git-R-Done. Kray says differences in hormones that influence aggressive and caring behavior may also be a factor in their results.

The second study leaves open the question of whether women expect to actually be put in such morally compromising positions when they embark on business careers. So Kennedy and Kray used an implicit association test, or IAT. These tests, which ask subjects to quickly categorize words, measure subconscious stereotypes. (According to one test, 80 percent of female respondents associate female with family and male with career, a form of self-stereotyping that may discourage professional goals.) In this test, Berkeley students responded to words related to business (such as corporation and earnings), law (court, litigation), immorality (wrong, unethical), and morality (honesty, ethical). Business was compared with law because both are lucrative, competitive professions. Women associated business with immorality more strongly than men did. Combine that with their greater aversion to making ethical sacrifices, and you can see how they might be put off by corporate culture.

Kennedy recommends that companies implement more ethical training, select people partially on the basis of ethics, and emphasize ethics as a core cultural value when recruiting. “If business organizations take a long-term view of success, they can allow people to value both ethics and achievement,” she says. “This would allow the people within organizations—both men and women—to be more fully human.”

This holistic view is at least conceivable. In the first study, subjects rated the taboo trade-offs as making moderate business sense, so people see immorality as compatible with the aims of business—but not required, given that the more people saw an act as wrong, the less business sense they said it made.

One promising conclusion from this research is that if more women do enter the business world, standards of ethics may evolve. “We need to see more women at the top,” Kray says. “I think that will change the culture of corporate America.”