Executive Summary: Men, Women and Ethical Leadership

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A Research Report from the National Business Ethics Survey® (NBES®)

ECI’s latest National Business Ethics Survey (NBES®) study of gender in the workplace. finds that men and women in business leadership roles approach their jobs in similar ways and are about equally committed to ethics in the workplace, but female leaders and women employees at all levels face much greater ethics risks than their male counterparts.

Executive Summary

A wealth of studies have shown that women have historically experienced discrimination in the workplace, earned less money for equal work, and found it harder to reach leadership positions. In recent years, as more women have climbed the corporate ladder, studies have looked for gender-based differences in leadership styles. But few of these studies have focused on ethics and whether male and female leaders approach it differently. To address this gap, the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI), decided to take a look at the critical question through a randomized re-survey of a portion of respondents from the National Business Ethics Survey® (NBES®) 2013.


We set out to learn whether men and women exercise ethical leadership in different ways and also whether (both the leaders’ and the employees’) gender influenced employee perceptions of tone at the top. Perhaps surprisingly we found relatively small differences between male and female leaders in exercising ethical leadership. Based on personal interactions with their bosses, employees said that male and female leaders generally shared the same priorities: (a) maintaining integrity in the company, (b) meeting business goals even at the expense of ethics standards and (c) treating all employees fairly and with dignity. While the willingness to sacrifice ethics in order to meet business goals is alarming, the tendency was shared by leaders of both genders. Among the few notable differences, employees said female leaders were more likely to use the company for creating positive change in the outside world. Male leaders, on the other hand, were1 seen as caring more about beating competitors.

We also asked employees to consider how their leaders performed in crisis situations and what the leaders valued when under pressure. Again, leaders of both genders were credited with the same priorities, but employees believed that female leaders were more concerned about employee well-being. Male leaders gave somewhat more consideration to protecting the company brand and maintaining trust among employees.


While our research found that gender did not make a significant difference in the way leaders approached ethics, it revealed a very real difference in the workplace ethics environment for men and women. Simply put, in terms of ethics and compliance, female workers are at much greater risk than their male counterparts. That enhanced risk applies to female leaders as well as lower-level female employees. In a nutshell:

  • Women in senior leadership positions are more likely than men at the same level to feel pressure to compromise company ethics standards and/or the law,
  • Women are more likely to experience retaliation for reporting misconduct, and
  • Women are more likely to doubt their leaders’ commitment to workplace integrity.

Perhaps in response to these negative experiences, the survey found that women are much more likely than men to give their leaders low ratings on key attributes of ethical leadership. For example, 67 percent of male employees said their senior leaders could be trusted, but just 57 percent of women shared that confidence. Women also feel less positive about their companies. Approximately two-thirds of men said employees could question management without fear, but just 56 percent of women agreed. There was a similar 10 percentage point gap (72 percent to 62 percent) between the genders when asked if they would recommend their company as a place to work.


We are convinced that strong ethical leadership can change these disparities between men and women’s experiences in the workplace. Our prior research has shown that workplace misconduct declines when leaders are effective in communicating values, and that ethics violations and ethics risk fall in companies whose leaders focus on equality.

As noted in the report’s recommendations, ethical leadership can make a difference by:

  • Promoting equality and diversity,
  • Soliciting employee feedback on how the workplace experience can be equalized,
  • Prioritizing values through deeds as well as words, and
  • Demonstrating accountability by addressing employee concerns, especially reports of misconduct.

Bottom line: Leaders set the tone for the workplace and choose organizational priorities. Employees, in turn, read their leaders’ cues and respond accordingly. If leaders recognize the inequality in their workplace, they have the ability to mitigate the problem by giving it attention and making sure that employees get the message.


Content provided by the Ethics Research Center (ERC), the research arm of ECI.