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Are Women More Ethical than Men in the Workplace?

Taking another Look at Who Should Lead Organizations

Does having 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.

Not only has research found that women are less willing to compromise ethical standards for career success, but that they are also more likely to believe that corporate ethical codes would make a positive difference. This implies they are more willing than men to establish an ethical culture in an organization and set an ethical tone at the top. Indeed, that means they could be more ethical leaders than men.

One with the perception of women as the more moral gender at work, we run the risk of placing an unfair expectation on women, i.e. an unethical woman at work doesn’t make sense but an unethical man is to be expected and accepted.

One word of caution is some see ethics as subjective, situational, and with a cultural dimension. But that can’t be right. If it were, then men and women could define right and wrong differently in the workplace and apply their own values when conflicts exist. If that were a fact, then ethics codes would be useless and ethical standards would then applied on a relative basis. What’s ethical in one situation for one company would differ from another. And, what’s ethical for one individual, even within the same company, is different than for another.

The pipeline for female leaders seems to be widening. Women have made significant gains in educational attainment in recent decades, better positioning themselves not only for career success but also for leadership positions. Since the 1990s, women have outnumbered men in both college enrollment and college completion rates, reversing a trend that lasted through the 1960s and ’70s. And women today are more likely than men to continue their education after college.

Women have also made inroads into managerial positions and professional fields in recent decades. In 2013, over half of managerial and professional occupations in the U.S. (52.2%) were held by women, up from 30.6% in 1968. Even so, women continue to lag far behind men in senior management positions.

The glass ceiling barely shows a crack even though women have entered the workforce in large numbers for the past twenty years. If indeed women are more ethical than men at work, then targeting women to serve in C-suite positions and on boards of directors would seem to make sense.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 13, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: