Could women’s ethics help explain the gender gap?

Fewer women hold top management positions in business. Why the gender gap? Perhaps women are just more ethical, suggests a new study from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Well, it’s actually slightly more nuanced than that.

Participants in the study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science received job descriptions for a position at a consulting firm.

They also got advice from a “current employee” – and some learned that, in this job, they might have to exaggerate their results of the work they do for for clients to collect their fees.

In this scenario, women found the job less appealing, said Jessica Kennedy of the Wharton business school who co-authored the study with Laura Kray of the University of California-Berkeley.

“I found that women react more negatively to ethical compromises than men and I found that this seemed to explain why they have less interest in business jobs,” Kennedy said.

Not that business is implicitly unethical, she clarifies, but it’s a field based on achieving results and goals. (Though, they study report points out, “In the movie ‘Wall Street,’ Gordon Gekko famously stated, ‘Greed … is good.’ To many, this mantra typifies the attitude held by businesspeople.”)

Kennedy’s takeaway from the study is that it reframes a debate focused on the disadvantages faced by women in the workplace. She thinks men are taught to prioritize results and so are more able to overlook ethical conflicts.

And, she clarifies, there’s no judgment on men either. They just get different messages on how to behave, she said.

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