Why Men Outnumber Women Attending Business Schools

New research explores gender disparities in business school enrollment by the different ways men and women appear to process ethical compromise.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All this week we have been focusing on women and wealth. Look across the business world in fields with the biggest paychecks and you find executive ranks and company boards dominated by men. These disparities often begin back in business school where men outnumber women significantly. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam came in to talk about research that might help explain this. It looked specifically at why some women opt out of a lucrative career path. Hey, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, Shankar, this begins actually in a business school classroom. You've been talking to some researchers who've been picking up some things as they've been looking at business schools. What are they seeing?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I spoke with Laura Kray. She's a researcher at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, David, and she's noticed over the years that there are always more men than women in her classes.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

VEDANTAM: And she's also noticed something else - there are differences in how the students in her class respond to ethical dilemmas. In one of the scenarios she gives them, for example, there's a real estate negotiation that's underway. The buyers want to turn a property into a commercial project. The sellers want their home to be preserved. And the question is, should the buyers reveal their intentions to the sellers? Here's Kray.

LAURA KRAY: What I found is firstly that men tend to have more lenient ethical standards than women, and secondly, that negotiators are more likely to tell a blatant lie to a female counterpart than a male counterpart.

GREENE: Interesting. So two different things going on there, Shankar. Let's deal with them separately. The first is that everyone, men and women, seem more likely to lie if they're dealing with a woman, which is an interesting finding.

VEDANTAM: Yes, in some ways sad but true, which is that both men and women feel like they can take advantage of a female negotiator more than they can take advantage of a male negotiator. So they're more likely to lie.

GREENE: But then, also that women think differently than men when it comes to ethical standards and ethical choices. What does she make of that?

VEDANTAM: So both men and women, when they're asked represent the buyer, they seem to come to different conclusions. Men are more willing to lie on behalf of the buyer and say they are not planning to turn this project into a commercial project. Women are more likely to be upfront and tell the truth.

GREENE: So let me stop you there. She's basically saying that men are morally inferior to women.?

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: That men are more willing to just lie on behalf of who they representing?

VEDANTAM: You know, psychologically, David, that is one way to put it. But there's something else going on. In a study that Kray conducted with Michael Haselhuhn, she found that men tend to apply ethical principles egocentrically. And what that means is that when an ethical decision affects them negatively, they're likely to perceive the situation as being unethical. But when the situation benefits them, they're likely to say: Well, it's a gray area - it's not such a big deal.

GREENE: So let me just make sure I understand that. If a man is representing the person who is selling the house, they're going to say: Hey, the buyer should be honest here, they should be ethical, they should admit that their intention is to turn this into a big condo unit. But if they're actually representing the buyer they might say: Oh, it's fine, this is business, I don't need to tell you I'm going to turn this into a condo.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, David. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to see the ethical decisions as ethical decisions. In another study that Kray has conducted with Jessica Kennedy at the Wharton School, researchers asked men and women whether they would be willing to include an inferior ingredient in a product. So think of a drug, for example. Well, you put in an inferior ingredient and it allows you to make a lot of money, but in the process some people get hurt.

Kray and Kennedy measured the reactions of their volunteers when they were presented with this scenario. Here's Kray again.

KRAY: Women experienced these moral emotions more so than men did. They found it outrageous to go with the cheaper ingredient that's going to cause harm to people when it could have been avoided.

GREENE: So these differences in sort of ethical thinking, do these researchers think that they say a lot about women and their comfort or discomfort with the world of business?

VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly what they're saying. They are saying at in every step of the process, right from business school on to the actual corporate world, women are confronting a triple hurdle. The first hurdle is that men are more willing to accept jobs that involve ethical compromise. Men seem to be less plagued by ethical doubt. And women are not only plagued by ethical doubt, they're actually targeted for deception.

GREENE: And I guess that these are numbers. But the big unanswered question is sort of how to look at it. A lot of people would say, you know, in business to succeed and to accomplish your goals, you have to be shrewd. And a lot of other people would say, you know, it's not worth giving up your ethical standards, I'd rather be a woman than a man.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. And it's hard to sort of argue that women are doing something wrong here, David, because they actually are the ones who seem to be acting ethically. On the other hand, Kray points out, that by thinking about these business decisions in this way, women are essentially taking themselves out of the conversation.

It's her hope that if women actually understand the way they're thinking about business, that they actually understand that process, they will find a way to stay in the game and also stay ethical.

GREENE: Which in the end could make them the most successful businesspeople.

VEDANTAM: Potentially.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always coming in.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can find him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You can follow this program @nprgreene and @morningedition.

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