‘Women are usually not considered for bribe.’ During an informal Friday evening dinner, I was introduced to the concept of corporate bribery by a friend who has a wide range of work experience across various fields and industries.
It’s an intriguing subject and one I have never contemplated before. Not just because I was oblivious to the unethical practices in the business world but also because I had never before heard this spin to the story. How or why would gender influence the ethical practices of trade? Well if everything else at workplace is ‘different’ for men and women, then why should this be a surprise?
Curious, I further questioned why. Are women perceived to be more ethical? Or are women perceived difficult to approach for unethical favours?
Are women more ethical?
Ethics and morals are fuzzy subjects. There are some clear definitions of right and wrong; but most others are up for debate. Right and wrong sometimes change as per the context. To add influence of gender complicates the discussion further.
In a business environment, it’s not just about giving and accepting bribes to win new business. The ethical questions emerge at many subtle levels – favouring a specific business partner; sharing of confidential business information; making unacceptable sexual advances; keeping consumer interest as priority etc.
Does the ethical code of conduct change for men and women at every level? Is it an inherent moral compass because of the fundamental gender differences or is it a forced moral responsibility for one gender?
Searching for answers, I found a few articles online on the studies done in the past about ethics and gender.
They might not have concluded with complete certainty but studies have indicated the following behavior patterns.
- Women are more ethical than men. One article explained the biological differences to clarify this behavior pattern, which I am not quite sure I comprehend completely but it was convincing.
- Women are subjected to higher ethical standards. Women are expected to do the right thing.
- Women who violate ethical code are given harsher and more severe punishment.
The perception of women being more ethical is also a form of gender bias. Though it sounds like a positive bias. But it’s important to acknowledge that any form of bias and stereotyping can have far reaching implications.
Let’s spend a moment in spelling out this convoluted reality.
Women are considered less competent than men; paid lesser than men; and not considered for senior management positions. While we deny them their rights, we expect them to do the right thing. We, of course, don’t acknowledge or reward the moral behavior. It’s the basic quality women ‘ought to’ bring with their existence.
This is not an entirely wrong expectation. Ethical code of conduct should be an expectation from every employee or member of the civilized society. But why is it a bigger sin for one gender? And why is it easy for us to forgive one gender?
Is it difficult to approach women for unethical favours?
While it’s been inferred that women are subjected to higher ethical standards, its not the only reason they are not offered bribes as often as men. Could it be just a matter of convenience?
This is where things start to get intriguing. Here’s the gist of an honest but slightly awkward conversation.
- It’s complicated! When opposite genders are involved, things can assume multiple other connotations. So, men from the vendor companies wouldn’t generally approach women from the client business.
- Most of these conversations are more effective when initiated over a smoke or a drink. Again, men find it relatively easier to invite other men in informal settings.
- Girl gangs are not considered to have the same camaraderie as compared to boys and their buddies. Women are expected to not bond with each other. So women from vendor companies are not generally expected to approach women from client businesses. It’s assumed it just wouldn’t work out.
- Vendors prefer to hire pretty women as account managers to manipulate clients into action. Mostly sexual favours are not expected and sexual advances are not made. But there is an expectation of underlying unsaid sexual tension that could help get more business.
I wonder if the reverse is true. Do vendors hire pretty boys to get more business from women clients? If the client has pretty women as managers, do vendors go out of their way to work with them and bend rules?
While the approach road to women clients seems awkward and complicated, there are few other important elements to be considered in the equation.
- The gender ratio is still highly skewed in most organizations. Vendors can easily find enough men to influence potential business decisions. Why even bother to initiate a complicated arrangement?
- The presence of women in higher management and decision-making roles is limited. An important part of the target audience to be manipulated by vendors is anyway men. Years of transactions have resulted in unsaid unwritten rules across industries on creating ethical compromising situations for men.
Given the expectations of higher ethical standards from women and the complicated awkward approach, women are simply kept out of the equation.
Is this a new challenge to balance gender ratio at workplaces?
This throws a new light to a larger debate on gender bias and skewed gender ratio at workplaces.
Hiring more women to balance gender ratio can have far reaching implications than the ones we have debated over the years. There is a wide ecosystem that could get disturbed by the new dynamics.
Based on the perception that women are more ethical, what if we were to infer that hiring more women might be a potential solution to creating more ethical workplaces?
But what if this leads to more dissonance? What if more women are hired and some corrupt vendors start hearing more NOs and start hurting women in other ways to again replace them with more men who would support their cause?
On a positive side, what if women are able to create higher ethical standards in a unit, company or industry, which might result in better products and customer care, which might further result in higher profitability and revenue for the company? Could that potentially change the moral fabric of the society as a whole?
Is the workplace gender ratio debate more complex than we perceived before? Could women be subjected to more mental, emotional or even physical abuse if more women at workplaces pose a threat to the existing comfortable ecosystems?
But what about success?
Given the complexity of the ethical debate and a wide spectrum of opinions, the above questions have no relevance when asked in isolation.
Do we even care about creating more ethical workplaces?
High value system is not associated with success. As a society, we applaud and worship success and specifically a set of commonly accepted parameters of success. Ethical codes of conduct are expected to be violated.
In a highly competitive world, many organizations or individuals might not be willing to place a code of ethics higher on priority versus success. They can coexist but are perceived to be mutually exclusive.
This possibility makes the entire discussion so far futile. And creates another uncomfortable inference. If you could only be seen on one side and that choice has already been made for you, then your fate is sealed.
We are probably setting up women for failure and limited professional growth by pegging them to high morals. Deep down, it’s expected that some corners be cut for success. And women are expected to exhibit high moral values.
I am not implying that women should lower their ethical standards. But we need to dissociate success with compromised ethics; and raise the standards for everyone.
If we peel one more layer of the issue, we might realize that in the larger scheme of things these questions don’t matter. It’s not so much about the ethics. Neither is it primarily about gender equality. It’s about status quo.
We like our comfort space. We don’t want to deal with change.
A concluding note
These are hypothetical questions for a world that might not exist. But these are essential to be contemplated and answered by individuals and groups who have the power to influence the dynamics. With more people entering the organized workforce, organizations cannot deny the responsibility they bear; they have the unique ability to design the shape and structure of a new society.
Our world is more connected and closer than ever before. Technology has already shifted our lives dramatically. Ethical debates now have a wider scope and are more relevant. In the new world order, with the advanced and easy communication, networking and information availability, we have the ability to support each other or hurt each other more than ever before. This choice is to be made by individuals and society together. It’s an important choice to be made now.