When it comes to being a CEO of a big corporation more fail than succeed. Estimates of leader incompetence and failure range from one half to two-thirds. The tenure of most CEOs is too close for comfort to Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathon: “nasty, brutish and short.”
Most of the CEOs who fail to survive are fired for poor performance.
With that track record, how tough is it for a woman to succeed as an ethical leader? There is mixed evidence to suggest women are more likely than men to possess the leadership qualities associated with success, and that includes ethical leadership.
For example a Wharton study suggests women are less ready to compromise their ethics in pursuit of success at work. That is, women are less willing to sacrifice ethical values for money and social status, and that women associate business with immorality more strongly.
It is hard for example to name a woman at the centre of a major ethical debacle, though some might quote Martha Stewart who was convicted in 2005 on charges related to the ImClone insider trading affair.
In theory at least, women are said to be more sensitive to ethical issues than men. The evidence though is hardly overwhelming. However, they are more likely to believe corporate ethical codes can make a positive difference.
If one can make a generalisation at all in this contentious area, women leaders tend to be more transformational than men. That is, they seem to care more about developing their followers.
They listen to them, stimulating them to think “outside the box.” Putting it slightly differently they are likely to be more inspirational, including ethically inspiring, that is setting the tone at the top.
Why women tend to act more ethically than men in the private sector is therefore an important issue for anyone concerned with ethical leadership. It’s certainly one many researchers are trying to answer.
For example, Laura Kray, a Professor at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley has shown how, in various negotiation scenarios, men become more ethically “lenient” in their decision making, while women stay remarkably stable.
“…morality and ethics are driven by one’s ability to experience empathy and compassion, not some cost-benefit analysis. We know women are more emotional and experience these emotions more intensely than men. When you combine that with the fact that men are concerned about their masculinity being on the line, it becomes a toxic equation for ethics.”
Laura Kray, a Professor at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley.
While men are more likely to engage in unethical behaviour, they might also be perceived as more willing to do “everything it takes” to gain profits. A study of Directors at European banks, for example, found the proportion of women on boards is higher for banks with lower risks and less leverage.
Whether women leaders are more ethical than men seems to ultimately come down to the driving purpose of a business. If the single-minded goal is maximizing shareholder profits then maybe men are indeed better placed to succeed.
But increasingly this is not the sole guiding principle. Other factors, are being widely recognised as important in business too—often summed up as people and planet.
They include contributing to a better world, promoting sustainability, creating a workplace where people find meaning and satisfaction, building collaborative relationships, encouraging diversity, integrity and transparency.
That business in general desperately needs ethical leaders is hardly in dispute, with trust in business at an all time low, and a track record of ethical abuses that seems to grow inexorably. As one successful woman CEO has put it:
“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.”
If women really are more ethical than men at work, then it’s manifestly not helping them much right now when it comes to career success.
Not only are women still struggling disproportionately to reach CEO roles but a continuing perception of them as the more moral gender at work risks placing on them an unfair expectation.
- Peterson et al, Effects of Nationality, Gender and Religiosity on Business related ethicality, Journal of Business Ethics, 2010,
Why Women Make Better Leaders Than Men, Ronald E Riggio Ph.D. on Mar 09, 2010 in Cutting-Edge Leadership
M. Swayne, Women still less likely to commit corporate fraud, Penn State News, August 13, 2013
Are Women Leaders More Ethical Than Men? Ronald E Riggio Ph.D. May 17, 2013 in Cutting-Edge Leadership
V. Ko, Study: In business, women value ethics more than men, CNN May 17, 2013
Do Female CEOs Behave More Ethically? Corner Office, June 23, 2013
A. Learned, Do women have stronger ethical business principles than men? Guardian, 15 May, 2014
L. Ogunseitan, Are Women Generally More Ethical than Men in the Workplace? The Glass Hammer, September 16th, 2014
G. Albaum and R. Peterson, Ethical Attitudes of Future Business Leaders: Do They Vary by Gender and Religiosity? Sage Publications, Feb 2015