Kellogg Magazine | Kellogg Insight

Research in brief: ethical dilemmas for women at work

As part of the 2018 Global Women's Summit, several faculty members presented new research about challenges facing women in business. Here are highlights from a faculty panel on ethics in the workplace.

When negotiating for yourself

Studies have found that during negotiations, men are considerably more likely to lie than women — and men are more tolerant of lying as a strategy. But why?

It's a bit of a puzzle, according to Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. Generally speaking, she found, men and women tend to approach ethical decision-making fairly similarly. So it seems to be something about negotiations in particular that causes large gender differences to emerge.

New research by Thompson offers an intriguing explanation: Men and women enter into negotiations with different default assumptions about what's at stake. Namely, men tend to view negotiations as competitions with winners and losers, while women tend to view them as relationships, with opportunities for everyone to win.

"Men and women walk around with different lenses on," Thompson says.

When people are encouraged to view a negotiation with a different lens, she finds, the gender differences shrink.

In three studies, Thompson and her colleague, Jason R. Pearce of UNC Greensboro, asked participants to play a computerized game with a "partner" on a computer in a different room. Participants were handed an envelope of cash and given the opportunity to split the money with their partners. The partner could then choose to accept the split or not. But there was a twist: Participants were allowed to lie about how much money was in the envelope — saying there was only a dollar, for instance, instead of a twenty — to trick their partners into accepting a less favorable split.

Consistent with previous research on negotiations, 44 percent of male participants chose to lie to their partners, while just 29 percent of women did.

Critically, however, when the exercise was presented in a different frame, the results changed drastically. In a second study, the game was explicitly framed as a competition. This is a bargaining game, participants were told, so it was they versus their opponents. "We made it sound like this was going to be a real fight to the finish," Thompson says.

In this context, the gender difference decreased, with both men and women frequently choosing to lie.

"When the women were put in this competitive, winner-loser, opponent frame, 64 percent of them said, 'OK, I'm going to lie too,'" Thompson says. "So it isn't the fact that we don't have this in us. It's just that somehow that was not our mindset going in."

Which begs the question: If encouraging women to adopt a competitive mindset can make them lie more, will encouraging men to adopt an empathetic mindset lead them to lie less?

A third study tested this hypothesis. Some participants were told that their partners were retirees in financial straits who wanted nothing more than to purchase treats for their grandchildren with any money they made during the experiment. Under this condition, few participants — of either gender — opted to lie to their partners.

"We were able to induce more truth-telling in men," Thompson says.

"Research has shown that when women are in advocacy roles — for example, using a framework of 'we' or 'I'm negotiating for us' — then women don't experience a backlash when they negotiate assertively."

When negotiating for others

Women are often given a simple piece of advice before stepping into a negotiation: Frame your argument as though you are advocating for someone else, be it your team, your organization or even the success of your project.

The idea, says Maryam Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, is that advocating for others releases women from social constraints that would otherwise limit how tough or forceful they are allowed to be.

"Research has shown that when women are in advocacy roles — for example using a framework of 'we' or 'I'm negotiating for us' — then women don't experience a backlash when they negotiate assertively," Kouchaki says.

New research by Kouchaki suggests a potential wrinkle.

Advocacy roles can put a new kind of social pressure on women. Namely, women may feel less pressured to be polite, but more pressured to do "whatever it takes" to strike a hard bargain — even if "whatever it takes" involves unethical behavior.

In four studies, Kouchaki and her colleague, Laura Kray of UC Berkeley, confirm that when negotiating for themselves, women are less likely than men to use deception — such as failing to reveal the defects on a car they are selling. When representing someone else, however, the gender gap disappears.

Moreover, Kouchaki says, when explicitly asked, "only women feel pressure when they are representing others."

But here's where things get really interesting. When women negotiate on behalf of men, they lie more than when they represent women. Why? Kouchaki theorizes that women assume that men — more so than women — will want them to lie.

"Your constituents' preferences determine what you will do during a negotiation when you are negotiating on behalf of others rather than you relying on your own ethical preference," Kouchaki says.

Being held to a higher standard

Would Martha Stewart have received as much jail time for insider trading if she had been a man? Would her reputation, and that of her company, have taken the same hit?

Of course, as with most hypotheticals, it's impossible to say for certain.

But it is true that women face a higher ethical bar than men do, says recent research conducted by Nicole Stephens, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. In a new study, Stephens, along with her coauthors, Jessica Kennedy of Vanderbilt and Mae McDonnell of the University of Pennsylvania, examined a database of nearly 500 cases in which attorneys were judged to be guilty of breaching the American Bar Association's (ABA's) Rules for Professional Conduct.

Illustration by David Doran

"The judges who made the decision about punishment were highly trained," Stephens says, "and there was a very systematic process by which they decided the punishment that an individual should face."

Nonetheless, female attorneys were punished more severely than male attorneys for equal offenses, Stephens found. In fact, female attorneys were more than twice as likely to be disbarred for the same offense.

The disparity was greatest when there were very few female judges on the ABA's decision-making panel, and it disappeared as female representation increased.

"These findings suggest the importance of ensuring that women are represented in these important roles of influence," Stephens says.

A second study, in the laboratory, confirmed the overall findings. Participants read a hypothetical story about a man or woman who committed an ethical violation. The participants indicated that they wanted to punish female perpetrators more severely than male ones. They also indicated that they desired women to behave more ethically than men.

"As an individual, if you're a woman entering an organization and you look to act like one of the guys," Stephens says, "that might not be a good idea. There might be different standards applied to men versus women."


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