Power of Haas Ideas

The Ethics of Women

Gender and social pressure drive unethical decisions

Would you tell a lie to help someone else? A new study says women won’t lie on their own behalf, but they are willing to do so for someone else if they feel criticized or pressured by others.

In contrast, men are the opposite: they do not compromise their ethical standards under social pressure regardless of whether they’re advocating for themselves or anyone else.

The study, “‘I’ll Do Anything For You’: The Ethical Consequences of Women’s Social Considerations,” which received the Best Empirical Paper Award from the International Association of Conflict Management, was co-authored by Prof. Laura Kray and lead author Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University.

“We found that when women act on their own behalf, they maintain higher ethical standards than men,” says Kray. “However, women will act less ethically, such as telling a lie, when they fear being viewed as ineffective at representing another person’s interests.”

The findings are a result of four studies, each involving from 160 to 235 participants. One study, designed to better understand the psychological process behind unethical negotiating tactics, showed that women did not completely disregard—but only lowered—their moral obligations regardless of whether they were advocating for themselves or others.

“This suggests that women did not see unethical tactics as more acceptable when helping others … they lowered their ethical standards because they felt pressured to do so,” says Kray.

The study’s results may appear disturbing. But Kray stresses they are an opportunity for self-awareness. “Ask yourself, ‘What are the constraints and social pressures? If I were doing this for myself or someone else, how would I act differently,” says Kray. —PT

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Prof. Laura Kray Prof. Laura Kray