Are Women Really the Fairer Sex? Gender and Ethics at Work

Do women think and behave differently than men when making ethical decisions? Are we really the exemplars of good decisions and good deeds when we occupy leadership positions?

Women aren’t ethical simply because they are female. Carol Gilligan, psychologist, asserts that women do operate with a unique ethical perspective because of cultural conditioning. She states that men are more concerned with issues of rules and justice, while women focus more on caring relationships and are less likely to judge others. Such concern does not in itself lead to ethical (wise) decisions. The practice of ethics takes a lifetime of learning and we are only as good at it as our history indicates. Those striving to be ethical start over every day, hoping to do it right.

Both genders share some common misconceptions about how to activate ethics in the workplace. Whether a decision is ethical or not is not defined by expressed beliefs or a values statement, but by behavior—what is actually said and done—and its impact on others. Women should prepare to maintain an ethical perspective backed by actions once in the midst of corporate demands. Understand that “good people” can do the wrong thing. One slips down an ethical slope one small step at a time. Understanding the laws of behavior make that slip less likely. Here are a few practical steps to help you maintain your balance:

Step 1: Learn about behavior.

Once you begin to see ethical behavior as a function of the consequences that have surrounded that pattern over many years, you see how much you can do to help a person learn new ways to demonstrate values. To increase ethical behavior, don’t look to what people say they do, rather, look at what they do and the impact of their behavior. Learn how to pinpoint, measure, and reinforce the patterns that count.

Step 2: Make open dialogue possible.

As women, we tend to think that we are great listeners and conversationalists. But we, too, may be guilty of closing the door on dialogue when we’re in charge. To sustain ethical patterns of behavior at work, telling the truth is essential for all employees. Therefore, leaders at all levels must understand their role in promoting, not punishing, truth telling. That is where ethical leadership does the most good—you must always be ready to influence the ethical conditions, or lack, in your workplace. The freedom to discuss issues without negative repercussions is a sign of an ethical workplace.

Step 3: Live the example.

The workplace is not a democracy, but a venue in which some are reported to and others report. This hierarchal structure can create situations in which those in charge forgo common courtesies. If it is unacceptable for your employees to slam doors, yell, or make derisive remarks, then don’t do so yourself. When you use negative techniques to get what you want, employees are afraid to tell the truth about things that matter. Such aversive tactics are doubly unethical when you are in a position to control the consequences for another person.

Step 4: Be accountable.

Currently, there are now more discussions of caps for executive compensation—a pay for performance notion. Imposed regulations will escalate if individuals don’t stand up for reason and fairness on this issue.  Watch the perks of the office. Be alert to who got you there and take care in how you exercise your ‘rights’. Male or female, we learn to justify inequities that are in our favor one step at a time.  If you ask your employees to make sacrifices, make those sacrifices yourself; that may not be the rule, but it is the ethical choice.

Step 5: Reward yourself and others.

Employees need to know what you value. People aren’t all alike and don’t want the same types of recognition. Some people love public hoopla; others hate it and might just appreciate a sincere thank you. Find out the differences and let people know what is important to you as well.

Treat yourself the way you want to be treated. Make decisions seeking a balance between the rights of others, justice, the common good and self-interest.

Gilligan concluded that women are not inferior (or superior) in their moral development, but different, because we focus on connections with others and lean toward exercising an “ethic of care” over an ethic of mere justice. It is this unique difference that we should use and integrate into our workplace interactions.

About the author: As internationally known consultant and president and chief executive officer of Aubrey Daniels International, Darnell Lattal designs and implements behavior-based business strategies to achieve core initiatives. In partnership with her clients, Darnell has expertly contributed to organizational redesign and change management and other core business processes. Darnell has authored several books.

Photo credit: iStockphoto

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