Would More Women Make Business More Ethical?

Business Team Sitting at a TableBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A new study calls into question the perception of careers in business, and suggests that one reason many companies have trouble attracting female talent is that many simply don’t envision themselves as ethically compatible with jobs in big business.

The research tested how college aged people viewed integrity trade-offs for things like money or social status, then, in a second test, linked those views to business careers. A third test showed that women were less likely to apply for jobs when it was made clear that they may have to make ethical concessions to help their companies.

The research, written by Jessica A. Kennedy and Laura J. Kray out of the University of California, Berkeley, was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in March. It has implications for companies looking to hire more women at the entry level, as well as for leaders in companies themselves. How is their behavior representative of this perception? How will future leaders challenge the status quo?


The study itself was small and based mainly on the West Coast, so it may be difficult to project those findings to the broader population. But, the perceptions of business leaders as untrustworthy by the general public are not new. For example, according to a global survey of 31,000 people by Edelman PR, only 19 percent of respondents said they expected business leaders to make moral and ethical business decisions and only 18 percent said they would trust them to tell the truth.

Kennedy and Kray say the results were significant and telling – particularly in that they distinguish a correlation between gender and ethical compromise. They write, “As evidenced by frequent news reports detailing corporate scandals involving fraud and harm to others in the name of profit, business careers often involve ethical compromises. We propose that women, more so than men, find these ethical compromises unacceptable.”

Through a series of tests, the researchers found that the women in the study were more likely than men to associate business with immorality, that is, that it would require making ethical trade-offs for profit or social standing. The research also showed that women were more sensitive to these trade-offs than men were. Finally, the research revealed, women were less likely than men to pursue jobs that entailed ethical trade-offs. According to the authors, this shows that women perceive business as a less ethical career path than men, which may contribute to pipeline problems for companies looking to recruit women.


The research does not show that business is unethical, or even that most people perceive it as unethical – in fact, in the Edelman study, 50 percent of respondents worldwide said they had faith in the institution of business. It’s the people in leadership that the public is less sure of.

The study is about perception, it suggests a reason that women may be more likely to pursue other career paths. College-age women are more likely than men to believe would have to do unethical things to get ahead in business, and more likely to be repelled from a career in business because of that.

On one hand, this research could serve as a call to reach out to young women and discuss the ethics of business leadership. Sustained outreach on behalf of leaders around a frank discussion of integrity and ethics may help companies attract more high performing women, who would be inclined to look elsewhere for work.

But the study should also call into question why young women are viewing business careers this way. Why do women feel they will have to make ethical concession in order to get ahead at work? What is driving this perception?

Finally, according Kennedy and Kray, to the extent that reputation is a reflection of reality, more women may be good for business. They write, “[This research] suggests that retaining more women may have positive ethical consequences for business organizations. As women advance and occupy high authority positions, they may be able to improve the overall ethical standards of the organizations in which they work, if they can retain fidelity to these standards on the way up the hierarchy.”

By hiring more women at the entry level, companies would benefit from employees who are more averse to making ethical trade-offs. In the long run, would this result in a more ethically stringent workforce?