Are Women Really More Ethical Than Men? Maybe It Depends on the Situation

Article excerpt

Over the years U.S corporations have been caught engaging in unethical and in many cases illegal acts such as tax evasion, contractor fraud, "golden handcuffs" and "parachutes," overly large executive bonuses, the sale of unsafe products, fraud and conspiracy, industrial espionage, and product misrepresentation (Borkowski and Ugras, 1992; Donaldson and Gini, 1996). During the time when most of the decisions to commit these unethical acts were made, the top management teams of the companies which committed these acts were made up primarily or exclusively by men (see for example the composition of the top management team at Beech-Nut when the company misrepresented their apple juice product; the composition of the top management team at Ford when the company produced unsafe Pintos; the composition of the top management team at Dow Corning Corporation when the company produced unsafe breast implants; and the composition of the top management team at Johns-Manville Corporation when the company concealed the dangers of long-term exposure to asbestos). As more women climb the corporate ladder into key decisionmaking positions, the question of whether or not women will be as likely to engage in these same unethical practices has become more relevant.

Although several research efforts have examined the effect of gender on ethical decision making, results from these studies have been mixed (Beltramini et al., 1984; McNichols and Zimmerer, 1985; Barnett and Karson, 1987; Kidwell et al., 1987; Jones and Gautschi, 1988; Harris, 1989; Tsalikis and Ortiz-Buonafina, 1990; Stanga and Turpen, 1991; Sikula and Costa, 1994).

The objective of the current study is to develop a situational dynamics based model that more fully identifies what factors affect the manner in which women and men respond to ethical dilemmas. In order to accomplish this objective several studies that have examined the effect of gender on ethical decision making will be reviewed. Once these studies have been reviewed and their shortcomings are identified, an attempt will be made by the current study to overcome the weaknesses of prior studies and shed additional light on the effect of gender on an individual's level of ethical decision making.


Literature Review

With the advent of women managers and executives in organizational hierarchies, more attention has been given to the possible differences between the management styles and decision-making patterns of men and women. Due to the lack of empirical support for the notion that women tend to be more ethical or certainly more rules oriented than men (Brady, 1987), these differences have been particularly interesting to researchers in the field of business ethics.

One of the first major studies regarding this issue was conducted by Beltramini, Peterson, and Kozmetsky (1984). In their study of 2,856 students in 28 universities, women were found to be more concerned about ethical issues in business than men, regardless of the issue. based on their findings the authors suggested that "not only are the attitudes of future decision makers regarding ethical practices currently in the process of being shaped by educators, but to an extent it is the women students' concerns which may well be establishing a new moral force in tomorrow's business world" (1984: 199). While this study supported the thesis that women may be more moral than men in certain situations, the results are not clearly confirmed by the work of other researchers.

In a later study by Jones and Gautschi (1988) that used a fifteen question survey, the authors found that in general women and men do not indicate much difference in their ethical attitudes. However, they did find three areas where women indicated a stronger ethical response than men: product information for consumers, minority hiring, and comparable worth. Since these last two issues more directly affect women, it is easy to understand the increased level of interest by females. …


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