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Are Men More Likely than Women to Compromise Values for Career Success?

Ethical Values in the Workplace and Career Advancement

I recently read a piece posted by Pew Research that states men are more likely than women to compromise values for career success. This doesn’t surprise me because I have found that women students cheat lessoften than their male counterparts and claim unfair treatment much less than the males. My gut feeling is males are less mature about these issues and feel more entitled to favored treatment.

Two academic researchers conducted a series of experiments and found women were less inclined than men to sell out their values in order to win bonuses and promotions, keep down workplace rivals, curry favor with superiors or otherwise advance their own careers.   “We propose that women, more than men, find ethical compromises unacceptable,” wrote researchers Jessica A. Kennedy of the University of Pennsylvania and Laura J. Kray of the University of California, Berkeley.

In their first study, Kennedy and Kray recruited 65 women and 38 men online using the Amazon Mechanical Turk website. The participants read 14 vignettes that described compromises of ethical values in order to make more money or enhance status on the job.  For example, one vignette “described assigning a talented subordinate to peripheral projects and publicizing the subordinate’s mistakes in order to prevent this person from receiving too much respect and admiration,” they wrote.

Then, study participants were asked to rate their reaction to each vignette on a seven-point scale in terms of how objectionable they felt it was, how upsetting it made them feel, how morally acceptable they thought it was and four other factors.  The researchers averaged the 14 individual ratings, which ranged from 1 (“not at all”) to 7 (“very much,”) to arrive at a final score.

“As hypothesized, women experienced more moral outrage and perceived less business sense than men when confronting ethical compromises made for either monetary or social status gains,” they wrote.

In the second experiment, 94 male and 84 female undergraduate students were read descriptions of jobs in consulting, wealth management and private equity firms. Each job included a description of an ethical issue that an employee would confront, for example, whether to invest in money-making companies “that used unethical business practices to produce profits.”

But there was a twist:  After that brief description, some respondents were told that “the company’s norms favored profits”—a big hint that their success on the job would be measured in terms of dollars and cents and not their adherence to ethical standards.  Other respondents were told that the company favored choosing “in favor of ethics.”  A third group—the control group—got no clue about the company’s preferences.

Participants were asked how interested they were in working for this firm on a scale that ranged from 1 (not interested) to 7 (extremely interested).

Again, the researchers found that “women reacted more negatively than men to ethical compromises. When a job entailed ethical compromises, women reported less interest in it than men did, despite exhibiting no difference when the job did not entail ethnical compromises.”  In fact, women on average rated their interest almost a full point below men on the seven-point scale (4.45 vs. 3.56 for women).

“It’s not that men are totally into ethical compromises – people generally report negative reactions to them – but women’s reaction is more negative than men’s,” Kennedy said.

In a third study, 106 college students (52 women and 54 men) were given a list of more than two dozen words related to business or law such as “Corporation,” “Attorney,” “Profits” and “Prosecution.”  Then they were told to associate them with words implying a moral judgment or condition such as “Fair,” “Honest,” “Corrupt” and “Ruthless.”

The results showed that women held significantly more negative attitudes about the morality of business than men—more evidence, these researchers claim, that “women’s relatively strong implicit association between business and immorality may explain why they are underrepresented in business careers.”

I don’t know women about being underrepresented because of a higher sense of ethical values in the workplace. I do know that the business frauds and financial schemes of the past fifteen years were committed largely by male CEOs and CFOs. This in of itself leads me to believe women should be given a greater opportunity to break through the glass ceiling – to rise to the top – because it may lead to a more ethical organization culture.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 8, 2014