Who acts more ethically: women or men?
Believe it or not, there appears to be a real, scientifically demonstrable answer to the question—and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Women are less likely to lie when advocating on behalf of themselves, but more likely to lie on behalf of others. The opposite is true for men.
This is all according to a 2018 series of studies from the Kellogg School that examined women and men’s behavior to understand when and why people compromise their personal ethics. One of the project’s lead researchers, Maryam Kouchaki, recently wrote about her and her colleagues’ findings in the Harvard Business Review:
“In one study, we randomly assigned participants to act in a property negotiation as a buyer or as an agent representing the buyer. We told them that buyers wanted to build a commercial high-rise hotel on the property, but that the seller would reject their offer if they knew about this intent. We found that female participants assigned to the role of a buyer’s agent were more likely to lie than those assigned to be the buyer (64.4% vs. 44.4%) about their plans for the property in order to get the deal done. On the other hand, men showed no statistical difference in ethicality when acting for themselves or for others (60.6% vs. 72.2%).
When we asked why participants made the decisions they did, we saw that women were more likely to report feeling guilty about letting down those they were advocating for. They were more willing to engage in questionable behavior because they anticipated feeling more guilt and worried about disappointing others.”
This is interesting stuff, but readers should probably hold off on considering it verifiable evidence of gender-based differences in decision-making until more data emerges. For one, more and more scientists are raising alarms about reproducibility—meaning researchers are facing new, difficult questions in corroborating each other’s results—and the field of human psychology is especially tricky. Ironically, were we to take Kouchaki at her word, perhaps we should be skeptical of her work, seeing as she’s writing on behalf of her colleagues, employer, and funding sources.
There is, however, a less science-forward section of the article employers may find valuable. Kouchaki ends with 3 approaches anyone can take to “combat the tendency to behave unethically when acting on someone else’s behalf,” namely:
- Aim for intentionality. Be clear with yourself about what you’re doing and why.
- Ask for clarification. Ask others about their intentions instead of assuming.
- State your expectations. Tell people about your values and goals—in Kouchaki’s words, “be upfront about where you are and aren’t willing to go.”
These are great pieces of advice for people in any workforce compliance-related situation. It may not demonstrate or explain how men’s and women’s behaviors differ, but an honest conversation about intention and expectations is often exactly what we mean when we talk about tone at the top.