There are a lot of theories out there about why women continue to be underrepresented in certain careers and industries, and why they tend not to rise to the top of their organizations in similar numbers to men.
According to Wharton post-doctoral fellow Jessica Kennedy, one possible explanation might be women’s perceptions about the ethical compromises that have to be made to achieve results in certain careers — whether those outcomes are monetary gains or a rise in social status. Kennedy and co-author Laura Kray of the University of California, Berkeley detail the results of three studies looking at this phenomenon in a recent paper, titled “Who Is Willing to Sacrifice Ethical Values for Money and Social Status? Gender Differences in Reactions to Ethical Compromises.”
“There is a lot of debate out there about whether businesses can do well and do good at the same time. Our research suggests that doing business ethically could help businesses retain talented women,” Kennedy says.
The first study found that women on average felt more moral outrage than men when confronted with decisions that went against their values, and also thought those decisions made less practical business sense. They felt this way no matter what the motivation for the decision: “When ethical values were compromised, people were as outraged when social status was gained as when money was gained,” Kennedy says. Social status gains included a boost in respect or admiration from others, or increased chances for a promotion, she adds.
Moreover, when presented in the second study with simulated job descriptions in the fields of consulting, private equity and wealth management, women only reported less interest than men when the blurbs stated that the firms required employees to prioritize profits or status over ethics when they conflicted.
But when the position outlines indicated that a company valued ethics, or when they simply didn’t mention ethics at all, women expressed as much interest in the jobs as male participants, “suggesting it was not the mere presence of a conflict between ethical and secular values, but the forfeiture of ethical values, that caused women’s reactions,” the researchers write.
Kennedy and Kray found that these perceptions still held true even when women weren’t prompted by discussion about what role ethics or values would play in a particular decision or career. In the final study outlined in the paper, the researchers asked men and women to classify words they associated with either business or law. Women’s reaction times showed they were more likely than men to correlate words like “wrong” or “unethical” with business, even though the legal field typically isn’t devoid of ethical dilemmas.
“The research doesn’t clearly say that women are more ethical than men … and it doesn’t say that business actually is more unethical than law or medicine. It says that women perceive it to be more unethical,” Kennedy notes.
Since certain industries or jobs may be consciously or unconsciously tarnished by these perceptions in the minds of female job candidates, Kennedy says that firms can respond by being upfront about how they deal with questions of ethics.
“I think the research suggests that, to the extent that businesses want to retain talented women, they should be holding ethics training, selecting leaders who have high ethical standards and emphasizing ethics within the core culture of the company,” Kennedy notes. “It could also be a good reason to encourage all employees to voice ethical concerns when they have them.”
She adds that women, too, should keep the research in mind when charting their career paths and researching companies they may want to work at in the future. Even if ethical compromises aren’t a challenge they face in the present, the studies indicate that “women may care about this more than they initially appreciate, and more than some of their male colleagues might,” Kennedy says.