Are Ethical Concerns Stopping You From Getting Ahead In Business?

April 4, 2013 ‐ By



New research included in this Slate article shows that it’s not just the inability to “lean in” (as Sheryl Sandburg says) that’s stopping women from reaching the uppermost tiers of the business world. It could be a reluctance to bend ethical rules that stops us.

In the first of three separate studies, men and women were presented with a number of situations that touch on a number of values, such as honesty and loyalty, and asked where people would compromise to get ahead. More women found the ethical compromises “offensive” than men. In a second experiment, college students were presented with job descriptions and responsibilities with varying instructions about engaging in ethically questionable behavior. Men were interested no matter what. The women’s interest was dependent on the ethical implications.

Finally, in the third experiment, male and female Berkeley students were asked to make quick word associations. More women associated business with immorality.

One of the study’s authors, Jessica Kennedy from Wharton Business School, suggests more ethical training at the workplace. We agree; ethics are often overlooked in the workplace, with a greater focus on positive results even if you have to occasionally cross ethical lines. The ability to act more ethically not only makes the company better, but could improve diversity, which also has positive business results.

But if the findings of these experiments are true, we may see a shift in ethical standards in industries across the spectrum even without widespread adoption of ethical courses. A recent report from American Express Open shows that the number of majority women-owned businesses are growing, with 28.6 percent growth between 2002 and 2012. Moreover, these businesses are getting bigger, with more majority women-owned companies reporting $10 million or more in yearly revenues.

Dr. Marsha Firestone, Ph.D., the president and founder of Women Presidents’ Organization, a nonprofit organization whose members are women presidents of multi-million dollar companies, emailed us about this growth in women-run companies. (AMEX Open and WPO are partners.) She told us:

There has been a sea change in the last decade (2002 – 2012) in the kinds of businesses owned by women. They are now heavily in non-traditional industries. The greatest number of million dollar plus women-owned businesses is in wholesale trade (20%), finance/insurance (12%) and transportation/warehousing (11%). In the WPO the largest number of businesses is in manufacturing/distribution. We have seen according to the Growing under the Radar report by American Express OPEN that healthcare, social assistance and education are industries in which the growth of women’s ownership has been the strongest. We suspect that those same industries will continue in the near future. We have seen in the last decade that those women-owned businesses generating more than $1million have grown by 31%. That number would be even greater if businesses 50/50 owned by male and female partners and businesses with financial investors were included in the research.

As more women become business leaders, we could also see a shift in how business is done, with ethics and other concerns (like childcare and maternity leave) taking on greater importance.

Separately but related, Dr. Firestone also says that, among businesses owned by women of color there’s been growth of “9% to 12% in the last five years.” Get it ladies!

“We have worked with 100 Black Men of America to identify and honor women of color in specific communities who have become role models and leaders,” her email continued. The WPO is hosting its conference in Dallas next month in which black women business leaders will be highlighted. More info here.


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