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Study: In business, women value ethics more than men

By Vanessa Ko, for CNN
May 17, 2013 -- Updated 0218 GMT (1018 HKT)
Men are less bothered by ethical sacrifices if it means more money and higher status
Men are less bothered by ethical sacrifices if it means more money and higher status
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new study suggests that women are less willing to sacrifice ethical values for money and social status
  • It also suggests that women associate business with immorality more strongly than men do
  • Ethical concerns may explain the gender imbalance in workplaces and MBA programs
  • The implication for organizations is that acting more ethically may help retain talented women

(CNN) -- Women are less ready to compromise their ethics in pursuit of success at work, a recent study has suggested.

A study done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School suggests that women are less willing to sacrifice ethical values for money and social status, and that women associate business with immorality more strongly.

These concerns may explain why MBA programs and the executive level within companies have a heavy gender imbalance. And if matters of ethics are creating a gender gap within business organizations, it is just another reason for companies to do business ethically.

"Doing well and doing good might not always go hand in hand, but I think here is an interesting case where businesses can retain talented women by acting more ethically," says Jessica Kennedy, the paper's lead researcher and a post-doctoral fellow in legal studies and business ethics at Wharton.

There were three studies in the paper. In the most significant study, the researchers created job descriptions that included details like job responsibilities and salary, and asked subjects how interested they were in the jobs.

Some of these imaginary 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. "They were more likely to say, 'I would have to sacrifice my values to do well in this job, I would struggle with the things that I'm asked to do,'" Kennedy said.

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For women who are looking to advance in their careers, Kennedy says that it would help for those who value ethics highly to figure out the ethos of an organization.

Here is an interesting case where businesses can retain talented women by acting more ethically
Jessica Kennedy, Wharton School

Kennedy says that after seeing the studies' results, other people have enthusiastically agreed that her findings about gender resonate with their real-world experience.

However, prior to the study, she says, there was a general silence about the topic and had not heard anyone explicitly say women value ethics more than men.

"The explanation that I've come up with for that is that ethics are kind of taboo in organizations," she says. "I think maybe that's why no one is willing to say, 'I have ethical reservations about this,' because it seems like a very serious accusation that no one wants to make toward their organization."

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But Kennedy stops short of saying the study implies that women behave more ethically than men.

"It's not that they're more ethical, it's that their job interest is more affected, and so maybe men feel similarly," Kennedy says. "They may have moral reservations, but they're taught to suppress them so they don't report them, they kind of override them more, and it's questionable whether this translates directly into ethical behavior."

While perhaps it is unclear whether women are more ethical, there are other behavioral and attitudinal differences between genders that can affect career advancement, too.

Whitney Johnson, the co-founder of Rose Park Advisors, an investment firm, who has written about gender in the workplace, brings up that from the outset women are often expected to be more "giving" and "nice" (in negotiations, for example), which can hinder their careers.

She points outs that there are differences in how men and women are expected to behave in work relationships, with women being presumed to reciprocate helpfulness, while men are not.

Johnson has also observed business situations in which women and men have different views of what they owe to companies.

"In my experience, it is more common for a woman who has started a business and taken equity capital to feel like she needs to repay, when she doesn't, because it was equity -- which is the view most men take," she says.

Read more: Talent war as boomers retire from top roles

Even though women may be short-changed in the workplace because of these ingrained beliefs and behaviors, Johnson sees these characteristics of women as desirable for creating higher ethical standards.

"It is the very need of ethics that is driving many of us to talk about bringing the 'feminine' relational characteristics to the masculine 'wield power' characteristics of the workplace," she says.

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