Who Is Willing to Sacrifice Ethical Values for Money and Social Status? Gender Differences in Reactions to Ethical Compromises

Women have greater moral reservations about ethical compromises in business, contributing to the gender gap in business schools, companies, and leadership.


Women remain underrepresented in business, especially at leadership levels, where they account for only 14% of executives in Fortune 500 companies, and only 4% on Wall Street. This gender bias in career choice starts early. While women make up nearly half the students preparing for similarly competitive professions in law and medicine, they are less likely to pursue business degrees, comprising only a third of MBA candidates at leading schools.

Here, the authors investigate whether women are discouraged from pursuing business due to ethical concerns. A driving motive of profit distinguishes business from other fields like law and medicine, which may be highly lucrative but emphasize the importance of ethical values such as justice and well-being. This profit-seeking and a socially competitive culture can more readily lead to people making ethical compromises in their decision-making—that is, making decisions that sacrifice ethical values for monetary or social status gains. Prior research suggests that women may place more weight than men on ethical values and be less willing to rationalize unethical behavior. In three studies, the authors examine whether women and men differ in their attitudes toward ethical compromises in business, and how these attitudes affect interest in business careers. The first study compared women’s and men’s explicit views of ethical compromise scenarios. The second study tested whether moral reservations about such compromises impacted women’s and men’s interest in business jobs. Finally, the third study tested women’s and men’s unconscious attitudes toward the morality of business.


Women viewed ethical compromises in the workplace more negatively than men.

  • Women expressed greater moral outrage than men (3.74 vs. 3.21 on a 7-point scale) over multiple written scenarios about ethical compromises for monetary and social status gains.
  • Women perceived less business pragmatism (i.e. instrumental utility) than men (3.52 vs. 4.18 on a 7-point scale) in the decisions to make these ethical compromises.
  • Overall, the greater participants’ moral outrage over an ethical compromise, the less business pragmatism they perceived in the decision.

Women—but not men—lost interest in identical business jobs when they required ethical compromises versus when they did not, which was explained by their higher moral reservations.

  • Men expressed similar interest across job descriptions, whether they indicated that ethical compromises would be required, indicated that ethical issues would arise but that ethical standards would not be compromised, or did not raise ethical issues (4.45 vs. 4.67 vs. 4.67 on a 7-point scale).
  • Women expressed similar interest to men for job descriptions that indicated that ethical issues would arise but that ethical standards would not be compromised (4.97 points on a 7-point scale) or did not raise ethical issues (4.86)—but expressed significantly lower job interest (3.56) when job descriptions indicated that ethical compromises would be required.
  • Women expressed greater moral reservations than men for job descriptions requiring ethical compromises (5.06 vs. 4.04 on a 7-point scale) but no differences for the descriptions that indicated that ethical issues would arise but that ethical standards would not be compromised, or did not raise ethical issues, and this gender difference in moral reservations explained the gender difference in job interest (significance found on a mediation analysis).

Women unconsciously associated business with immorality, while men did not.

  • Women demonstrated a stronger unconscious association between business and immorality than law and immorality on an implicit association test (IAT) than men.  

In short, these findings suggest that women may be dissuaded from pursuing business careers because of moral reservations over unethical business practices. The business sector may attract a broader talent pool by emphasizing ethical values in hiring, training, and organizational standards. Attracting and retaining more women may also bolster the ethical standards of businesses.


In Study 1, 103 adults (65 women) on Amazon Mechanical Turk read 14 scenarios describing ethical compromises for either monetary or social status gains in the workplace. For each scenario, participants rated their moral outrage (7 items, 7-point scale) and the pragmatic business sense and acceptability as business practice (2 items, 7-point scale) of the decision to compromise. In Study 2, 178 university students (84 women) read 3 job descriptions for positions in consulting, private equity, and wealth management. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: high ethical compromise, low ethical compromise, or control. In the high ethical compromise condition, each job description highlighted a possible ethical tradeoff involved in the job, and stated that company norms prioritized profits over ethics. In the low ethical compromise condition, the job descriptions highlighted the same possible ethical tradeoffs, but stated that company norms prioritized ethics. The control condition did not mention ethical issues. For each job, participants rated their interest (1 item, 7-point scale) and moral reservations (5 items, 7-point scale). In Study 3, 106 university students (52 women) completed an implicit association test (IAT) measuring the strength of unconscious associations between business or law and morality or immorality, using words associated with each category.

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