Women More Likely To Shun Business Careers As 'Evil'

There's been much debate as to why women only make up just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Is it discrimination? The high-pressure atmosphere? Women's failure to "lean in"? A new study suggests another possible explanation: business can be dirty work, and women would rather stay clean.

Past research has found that women make more ethical corporate directors, restricting executive pay and curbing risk. (They're also more likely to whiste-blow.) But the perception of business as inherently muddied by ethical compromises may actual deter more women from getting into the game in the first place.

According to a new study published in the journal "Social Psychological and Personality Science" in March, women are more likely to be morally outraged at the ethical compromises that come with business, less likely to want to take a high-salary job in business if there are ethical compromises involved, and more likely to associate business with immorality in general.

How Evil Are You Willing To Be?

To see what effect ethics might have in discouraging women from pursuing a career in business, Laura Kray, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ph.D. candidate Jessica Kennedy conducted three different tests. The first presented 103 adults with different business scenarios that involved some shady behavior, like a CEO laying off 100 loyal low-level workers rather than trim his or her salary or using a cheaper ingredient in a cancer drug, even though it was known to cause random lethal allergic reactions.

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The participants rated their moral outrage (how disgusting, upsetting, shameful was this decision?) and also how much business sense each situation made. The women reported more moral objection than the men, and also ranked them as less acceptable as business practices.

In the second study, the researchers had 178 college students read job descriptions for high-paying positions in finance or consulting. All of them raised an ethical issue at the firm, but some said that employees were encouraged to be ethical and honest, while others said employees should do what was necessary to make money. The undergraduates then had to report how much interest they had in the jobs.

The sleaziness of the company had no affect on the men's interest in taking the job, but it certainly did for the women. In the final study, 106 students were given an implicit association test. It turned out that women were significantly more likely to associate business with evil.

Women Are Raised That Way

"Women are socialized to be communal, which fits their traditional role to be in the home, where they're more insulated from market pressures," says Kennedy, who was intrigued by this question of gender and ethics after three years working in finance, one at the prestigious investment bank Lazard, and two at Goldman Sachs. Men, on the other hand, are raised to be more results-oriented, she said, where they're expected to do what it takes to achieve.

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Kennedy believes this may explain why women make up nearly half of students at law and medical schools, but only 36 percent at top MBA programs. Women just have weaker stomachs for the kind of ethical compromises that comes with pure profit-minded work. This could also explain why women are vastly overrepresented in government and nonprofit sectors, where employees also tend to make less money. On the flip side, companies with more women up top actually make more money -- perhaps because women are less seduced by the short-term profit.

"They could be creating a more long-term perspective," says Kennedy, "which could actually improve the bottom line."


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