Women In Business Discouraged By Ethical Dilemmas, Study Suggests

Portrait of happy young business woman thinking about something
Portrait of happy young business woman thinking about something

One study might have discovered the reason for the business gender gap -- morality.

Previous explanations for the underrepresentation of women in business include women being siphoned by other industries or failing to "lean in." The issue is certainly not one of capability: according to the New York Post, 2010 research from the University of Texas found that women are better at gauging risk, and are thus more successful Wall Street traders than men.

Could the gender gap in business be explained by differences in ethics?

That's the premise of a new paper forthcoming in Social Psychology and Personality Science, conducted by psychologists Jessica Kennedy and Laura Kray, the New York Post reported. The pair conducted three separate studies to see how women and men reacted when confronted with ethical dilemmas in a business context.

In the first study, 103 participants read 14 vignettes describing ethical compromises in the workplace, including, for example, the story of a manager taking credit for a project his subordinate stayed late at the office to finish. They then rated how objectionable these behaviors were, and how much business sense they made. Women were more likely than men to find the acts offensive, and to think that they made less business sense.

In the second study, 178 undergraduate students read three consulting and finance job descriptions. One third of the participants were given job descriptions that included a description of ethical issues he or she could expect to face, and were told that the company had a "whatever it takes" mentality. Another third of the participants read descriptions that included ethical dilemmas, but the description also explicitly stated that the company would expect employees to do the morally right thing. The final third of participants read job descriptions that made no mention of ethics at all. Results showed that male participants were equally interested in the jobs regardless of what the description said about ethics, and women were just as interested when ethics weren't mentioned or when they were told to "do the right thing." However, women exhibited less interest in jobs at the "whatever it takes" companies, suggesting that they were less comfortable with breaching ethics.

In the third study, Kennedy and Kray asked a group of 106 students to take an implicit association test (IAT). They found that female participants were much more likely to associate business with immorality than men.

So what's the solution? Since it seems unlikely that women will become more comfortable with the idea of unethical behavior in business, the challenge seems to be for businesses to stop requiring ethical compromise, if they do, and for them to show women that they don't.

According to Slate, Kray offered a solution: “We need to see more women at the top. I think that will change the culture of corporate America.”

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