Psychological Science at Work


The indispensable research blog on the science of the modern workplace, covering everything from leadership and management to the behavioral, social, and cognitive dynamics behind performance and achievement.


Why Apple May Struggle to Diversify Its Board

This is a picture of apples.Under pressure from the public and from major shareholders, more and more companies are pushing to diversify leadership. Technology giant Apple emerged this week as the latest corporation promising to add more women and minorities to its board.

“We live in an increasingly complex global marketplace, and the companies that can hire, attract, and retain women and people of color are better equipped to capitalize on global opportunities and avoid missteps that may not be apparent to a more homogenous group,” said Larisa Ruoff of the Sustainability Group — which is one of Apple’s largest shareholders — in a Bloomberg news article.

A recent study by Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization aimed at expanding opportunities for women in business, found that while women hold 53% of entry-level professional jobs, they only hold 37% of mid-level positions and 28% of senior-managerial roles.

Most startlingly, perhaps, women only account for 4% of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies. That’s only 20 women, compared to 480 men.

Many scientific efforts have been leveraged to explain this “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, and several important findings have graced the news headlines: workplace discrimination keeps women from advancing, they choose more “people-focused” professions instead, or that they simply don’t care for the business world.

But a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests another reason why women stay out of business careers: They’re less willing to make ethical compromises for material gain.

Jessica Kennedy and Laura Kray, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, knew from previous research that women react more negatively to ethical compromises, such as using deception to meet a profit margin. But Kennedy and Kray were interested in seeing whether this propensity would translate into reduced job interest for ethically questionable businesses.

The researchers first had participants read several vignettes where individuals compromised some ethical value (e.g. others’ well-being, close relationships, honesty) to gain some secular one instead (e.g. money or social status).

Overall, women reported greater moral outrage than men and believed these ethical compromises weren’t business savvy. Additionally, women were significantly less likely to express interest in a job that involved ethical compromises, an effect that stemmed from their moral reservation about taking the job. These results were further supported by an implicit association test — a procedure that measured beliefs about morality and business that lie below the level of conscious awareness.

These experiments suggest that, in addition to the societal barriers blocking women from reaching the upper echelons of the business world, there may also be an intrinsic motivation: Their aversion to ethical compromises reduces the overall appeal of a business career.

But this finding doesn’t tell the whole story. The data also show that women are, in fact, quite interested in business careers when they don’t involve ethical compromises, a nuance that might explain why women have higher turnover rates than men. Perhaps they select business as a career path initially, but then become disinterested upon discovering their company’s moral shortcomings.

“Retaining more women may have positive ethical consequences for business organizations,” Kennedy and Kray conclude. “As women occupy positions with authority, they may improve the ethical standards of the organizations in which they work, if they can maintain these standards on the way up the hierarchy.”

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