Not long ago, it was the year of the whistle-blowing women - with
Sherron Watkins of Enron, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, and Coleen
Rowley of the FBI being celebrated on the cover of Time magazine. It
was tempting to speculate that if more women were in charge, they'd
be an ethical force capable of transforming top management.
But more recent criminal cases, against Martha Stewart and
Enron's Lea Fastow, have tempered those hopes. Clearly businesswomen
can cross ethical and legal lines right alongside the men.
So where should corporate America turn in a post-Martha world? As
more women move into boardrooms and corner offices, can they have a
Welcome to a contentious debate with plenty of ifs and buts - and
few hard facts.
There is some evidence suggesting a tantalizing link between
women and ethical business behavior. But not everyone buys it - and
even those who do often disagree as to why.
"There's a camp that argues women are going to bring a different
perspective based on their historically and culturally accepted
caretaking roles," says Debra Meyerson, professor of education and
organizational behavior at Stanford University. "And there's another
perspective that doesn't buy into this [argument] that women and men
are different in some fundamental way."
Many tread carefully somewhere in between. Advocates for
appointing more women to corporate boards of directors say it would
lead to better business practices - but not because women are
inherently more ethical. "Because [women] have been outside [most
corporate boards] for so long, as individuals they're bringing a new
perspective. They're not necessarily just going to be one of the
Greek chorus saying 'yes' to the CEO," says Toni Wolfman, chair of
the corporate-board resource committee at The Boston Club, a
professional women's group.
A 2002 Canadian study offers a rare glimpse beyond the anecdotes
that are a staple of this debate. It found that 94 percent of
corporate boards with three or more women ensured that their
companies had conflict-of-interest guidelines, compared with 68
percent of all-male boards. When it came to verifying audit
information, the figures were 91 percent vs. 74 percent, according
to the Conference Board of Canada, an independent research group.
The study doesn't claim a causal link, however, since it's possible
that companies already engaging in such practices attract more women
to their boards.
About 16 percent of board members in Canada are women. In Fortune
500 companies in the United States, it's about 14 percent. What's
noteworthy about the Canadian study, Professor Meyerson says, is
that it looked at boards with more than two women. Research has
shown that unless a minority group reaches a tipping point of about
15 percent representation, its members are under extreme pressure to
conform to the majority. Women who have served on boards confirm
that finding, saying men show greater respect for their views as
individuals when there is more than just a token woman present.
"We're not asking you to put them on [boards] because they're
women, [but] if you're looking for the best directors, you can't
afford to ignore half the universe," Ms. Wolfman says.
As more women reach positions of power in the business world,
some observers say, there will simply be equal opportunity for
Embezzlement statistics bolster this argument. In 2002, women
committed slightly more embezzlement crimes than men. A recent New
York Times analysis of federal data showed that between 1993 and
2002, embezzlement by women increased 80.5 percent to 5,917
(compared with 5,898 by men).
In the broader category of occupational fraud and abuse, men do
commit 75 percent of the crimes, and they steal larger amounts of
money - a median of $185,000 compared with $48,000 for women,
according to a 2002 report by the Association of Certified Fraud