Ethics at Work: Are Women Generally More Ethical than Men in the Workplace?

iStock_000006954519XSmallBy Louise Ogunseitan

With ethics and codes of conduct being so pivotal to the internal success of companies, industries and consumer based trust – a heavy onus is on organisations to foster a culture that nurtures and promotes adherence to them irrespective of gender. However, there has been many articles written about one gender being more ethical than the other; women over men.

A recent conversation between Shakar Vendatam and David Greene on NPR suggests that men tend to ‘have more lenient ethical standards than women’ and The Guardian goes further to explore the constructs that encourage men to bend the rules more frequently.

We have to wonder; do we run the risk of giving free license for our male counterparts to blame unethical behaviors on their gender? Likewise do we give women leverage to operate from a moral high ground as the ethical ‘light-bearers’ of society which inadvertently extends to the workplace?

The Glass Hammer explored this topic in 2013 when we looked at research out of University of California, Berkeley by Jessica A. Kennedy and Laura J. Kray which looks at how when women perceive a departure from a code of conduct, they are less likely to want to be part of it.

Why this matters for you as a leader?
In today’s current economic climate where consumer trust is at a low, establishing a code of conduct or ethical standards within an organisation couldn’t be more important for three main reasons.

• It provides a unified and universal standard on what is considered right and wrong behaviours for an organisation.
• It builds trust among colleagues within organisation.
• It promotes trust from the consumer base.

The Gender Issue
So workplace ethics are a big deal. Yet research is suggesting that men do not regard them as highly as women. 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. Last year, a research team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School released a study where men and women were provided a series of fictitious job descriptions which they had to evaluate. Each job description included an ethics component and the outcome showed that women are less willing to sacrifice ethical values for money and social status and that women associate business with immorality more strongly. Could this be one of the reasons why globally, women still make up only approximately 9% of corporate board memberships?

A series of studies by scientists Laura Kray and Michael Haselhuhn indicate that the cause of the pattern is socio-cultural rather than biological. Many business practices such as negotiating deals are historically considered to be male orientated. The argument therefore is that men associate success in business with their identity and validation as a man. Any threat to business success is a direct challenge to their masculinity and identity.

In an article for the online magazine ‘Scientific American’, Cindy May Professor of Psychology writes;

‘Failure in these historically male-dominated situations is associated with diminished financial status, threat to professional rank, and – at least to some – weakness.’

These research findings may explain why there is a heavy gender imbalance in MBA programmes and board level positions within organisations. If there are differences in how men and women behave at work, with women being presumed to value and embody ethical practices more than men, what impact is this having on our success at work? The needle on women with executive positions across the Fortune 500 companies has barely budged over the last few years. If indeed women are more ethical than men at work, evidently it does not always work in our favour as it pertains to career success. With this ‘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. Herein lies the crucial definitive piece of the puzzle.

Why Individuality Matters
Finally, career success, and promotions must be dependent on the individuals successful and consistent compliance to ethical practices. Therefore all women cannot be more ethical than all men. In his article, ‘Does morality matter in managing businesses’ Victor W. Hwang writes;

‘Instead of thinking of companies as entities, let’s think of companies as collections of individuals. When we do that, we see morality in a different way: because individuals are motivated by moral purpose.’

The caveat to this topic is the fact that ethics are subjective and cultural. Since ethics depend on an individual’s morals then you can see how we can start to argue that people, regardless of their gender, may totally judge boundaries of good and bad behavior quite differently.