Warren Buffett Says We Need More Women in Business, and a New Study Shows He's Right


This week has generated a lot of talk on gender disparity in business. Warren Buffett recently submitted a heartfelt essay for Fortune Magazine, based on his own personal experiences, that served as a call to integrate more women into the workforce. Among the many causes that can play a role in women’s underrepresentation, Buffett highlights subtle discrimination and personal doubt, using the example of his longtime friend Katharine Graham. Now a study has come out indicating another determinant that can hinder a woman’s ability to climb the corporate ladder: ethical considerations.

Two researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School find that business ethics drive men and women in different career directions. Three experiments listed in the study find that:

1. Women associated business with immorality more than men did.

2. When reading decisions that compromised ethical values for monetary or social gain, women were more likely to express moral outrage than men and less likely to perceive the business sense in the decision.

3. Women shy away from career opportunities where there is a perceived taboo trade-off involved.

Jessica Kennedy, one of the researchers and a post-doctoral fellow in legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, makes it clear that this study does not prove that women behave more ethically than men. “It's not that they're more ethical, it's that their job interest is more affected, and so maybe men feel similarly … they may have moral reservations, but they're taught to suppress them so they don't report them, they kind of override them more, and it's questionable whether this translates directly into ethical behavior," she says.

Competition may drive capitalist innovation, but Whitney Johnson of Rose Park Advisors asserts women are expected to be “nicer” and “giving,” a behavior not typically rewarded in business practice. Among other traits more likely to be exhibited by women, perfectionism plays a role in different ways for gender. Dr. Jackie Deuling at Roosevelt University of Chicago finds in her research that there are two kinds of perfectionism:  adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionism often serves as a motivator, while maladaptive traits create self-doubt and can be demotivating. Dr. Deuling finds women are more likely to display maladaptive perfectionism. This can play a factor in workforce advancement through salary negotiations, asking for time off, and the “over confidence, under confidence” phenomenon. On the opposite side of the spectrum, men may be pressured more to perform and succeed at whatever the cost.

Whether these gender disparities in business are a result of physiology or environment, each gender can take an active role in helping to bridge the gap in business. The way men and women do business together, as partners, cannot mean one gender ascribing directly to the typical behavior exhibited by the other. Concessions must be made in both directions. Rewarding business savvy while also taking into account ethical considerations are not two mutually exclusive tasks.