When it comes to business ethics, it’s no big surprise that ascending to and being in positions of power has the potential to corrupt behavior. But does power tend to corrupt men more than women?
A 2013 study done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School suggests that women are less willing than men to sacrifice ethical values for money and social status, and that women associate business with immorality more strongly than men.
As part of the study, researchers created job descriptions that included details such as job responsibilities and salary, and asked study participants how interested they were in the jobs. Some of the made-up job descriptions included an ethical factor: there was a conflict between acting ethically and doing well at the job, and employees were expected to prioritize money and social status.
Only under the condition where ethics came into play did women, on average, show less interest in the job than their male counterparts. According to the study’s lead researcher Jessica Kennedy, women were more likely to admit they would struggle with sacrificing their values to do the things they would be asked to do while men seem more willing to sacrifice their ethical values in exchange for money or success on the job.
Prior to the study, Kennedy said little research had been done on the subject and she had not heard anyone explicitly claim that women value ethics more than men – and are less inclined to sell out those values in order to win business, earn promotions, get or stay ahead of workplace rivals, curry favor with superiors or otherwise advance their own careers.
“We propose that women, more than men, find ethical compromises unacceptable,” said Kennedy and fellow researcher Laura J. Kray of the University of California at Berkeley, in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Kennedy, now an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, was in the spotlight again recently with more research surrounding the origin of unethical business behavior, why it takes hold and how professionals can achieve their goals while acting ethically.
In an interview with Strategy+Business, Kennedy reflected on some of the practical consequences of her research, including women having greater reservations about sacrificing ethical values than men and how that could be impacting the rates at which men and women ascend to positions of authority over time.
“Are women more likely to lose interest in careers that they would otherwise enjoy if they think that these careers require ethical values to be compromised? And, in fact, I found evidence for that,” Kennedy said in the article. “If you show people job descriptions of prestigious careers—the types of jobs that new MBAs typically pursue—and you compare men’s and women’s interest in the jobs, you don’t see any difference. But if you tell people that the job requires them to compromise ethical values, men’s interest in the position doesn’t change, whereas women’s declines significantly.
Kennedy said this is significant, because even small differences in the degree to which men and women continue in a particular career can lead to big gender differences in authority over time. “Over the years, having a few women select out because of ethical conflicts means there are fewer women at the top to serve as mentors to junior women, which may then result in even fewer women making it into firm leadership roles.”
Anyone in the insurance and financial services industries knows these fields are heavily dominated by men. If women are indeed more likely to “select out” of the industry due to the potential for ethical conflicts, which certainly exist in these markets—it is likely hindering the industry from balancing out its gender inequity issues.