A B-School Prof On Ethics, Power & Gender

Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management

Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management

You’ve also studied ethics in relation to gender.

I led a study [with Laura Kray of the Haas School of Business] in which people were given examples of decisions that sacrificed ethical values such as loyalty and truth for profits and social status (for example, respect and prestige). We tried to make them pretty realistic scenarios, the types of things that businesspeople encounter, and asked them to report their levels of moral outrage and moral reservations. Women reported more moral outrage and greater reservations about sacrificing ethical values than men did.

I then looked at some of the practical consequences of this finding. Are women more likely to lose interest in careers that they would otherwise enjoy if they think that these careers require ethical values to be compromised? And, in fact, I found evidence for that. If you show people job descriptions of prestigious careers — the types of jobs that new MBAs typically pursue — and you compare men’s and women’s interest in the jobs, you don’t see any difference. But if you tell people that the job requires them to compromise ethical values, men’s interest in the position doesn’t change, whereas women’s declines significantly.

This is significant, because even small differences in the degree to which men and women continue in a particular career can lead to big gender differences in authority over time. Over the years, having a few women select out because of ethical conflicts means there are fewer women at the top to serve as mentors to junior women, which may then result in even fewer women making it into firm leadership roles.

Can you draw any conclusions about the connections among gender, power, and ethics?

The effect of hierarchical rank on acceptance of unethical practices recommended by a group holds across gender: Having higher rank reduced principled dissent for men and women alike. That said, there is sometimes a “main effect” of gender, meaning that men and women engaged in different levels of principled dissent, regardless of their rank. Interestingly, in the studies that examined real behavior, the relation was negative. Women engaged in less principled dissent than men when we looked at reporting behaviors or dissent expressed to groups. However, in scenario studies, the relation was positive. Women engaged in more principled dissent than men when they didn’t have to report it publicly.

I’m studying these findings now. My initial thought is that there must be something about having to publicly report unethical behavior that is discouraging women from acting on their beliefs. Maybe women fear backlash. Principled dissent is a highly assertive behavior, and engaging in it may violate gender stereotypes. To the extent women intuitively know this, they may feel unable to speak up.

What are some of the key takeaways from your body of work for company leaders?

My data suggests that if you want to avoid ethical misconduct at your company, you might want some lower-ranking people or some people who don’t identify highly with your organization as part of the groups that are making important decisions. Ideally, you’d have a culture that encourages lower-ranking people to speak up when they perceive something to be unethical.

We should also think about accountability. When high-ranking people know that they’re being held accountable for upholding ethical standards, does that lead to more effortful thought surrounding the evaluation of ethical practices? This is an open, empirical question. We know from previous research that having power increases an individual’s focus on goal-directed behavior. If you are clear from the outset that ethical behavior is one of the goals, I think it’s possible that you could reverse the effect of high rank. The problem is that ethical standards are often seen as obstacles to goals, rather than as an integral part of excellent performance.

Another question that emerges is, Will organizations benefit in terms of how ethical their practices are if they have women at the top? I’ve seen some data on executive women who serve on boards of directors that shows they care more about others’ welfare than about power. That suggests there is something unique about women’s values that will persist regardless of their level of rank in the organization. But as my research has shown, these value differences aren’t always translating into principled dissent. It’s a great avenue for future research — to identify the impediments holding them back, so that women’s emphasis on ethical values can benefit their organizations.


Laura W. Geller is senior editor of strategy+business.

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