Ethics, Sex and Power

Our media is rife with reports of unethical conduct by both men and women. We also often read stories of unethical sexual behaviour between persons where there is a power differential – that of supervisor or manager and subordinate. This started me thinking: do men and women have differing responses to ethical transgressions? And if they do, would a woman’s response to a situation change when she is in a position of power? Women have been fighting inequality on all fronts for centuries. We want to be treated equitably and we want to occupy positions of power without obstacles being put in our path. Are we, however, willing to rationalise certain unethical behaviour to achieve the power? Are some of us in fact becoming transgressors as we rise to power?


Do the different sexes have differing ethical beliefs?

Do women in positions of power treat issues in front of them differently to the way a man would? For instance, does a female Public Protector see ethical issues differently to a male Public Protector? Are male and female newspaper editors subjected to the same criticisms of the exposés that they pursue or is their sex not an issue?

Research (Ambrose & Schimke, 1999) has shown that women may behave more ethically than men. Women and men possess fundamentally different moral orientations and ethical reasoning, with women having a stronger moral compass than men - and thus would make different judgements. The way men and women are socialised has an impact on their perceptions of experiences and behaviour. So, if men and women differ fundamentally on the ethical front, it is reasonable to conclude that ethical issues will be rife with opportunities for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It is fact that superior status brings with it not only greater prestige and greater privileges, but greater power. This is true whether one is a man or a woman. The crux is, as more women take on leadership roles would their acquired power have an impact on their view of unethical behaviour as well as on their reasoning when faced with an ethical dilemma?

Moving underground

Whilst in today’s workplace there may seem to be fewer overt forms of sex discrimination, the issue has moved underground and undergone a subtle metamorphosis. Sexist stereotypes are resilient and the progress of women to positions of authority continues to be slow. A superior can also abuse many elements of the working relationship - power, dependency, vulnerability, trust - for sexual purposes.

Some women acquire masculine characteristics in order to succeed in the workplace and for some; this could mean allowing a shift in their ethical compass to achieve certain outcomes. People in positions of status and power are often faced with tests of their ethical behaviour – which are lapses in professional conduct. Power has the ability to influence people and thus it can be used shrewdly to elicit a certain desired behaviour without the abuse being blatant. The truth is that morale is pertinent to operational effectiveness - and nothing destroys morale more quickly and completely than someone in a position of power preying on and manipulating subordinates, even in subtle and covert ways. So whether the overture comes from a man or a woman, such behaviour is destructive to any organisation, not to mention the individuals involved.

Sensationalism undermines the issue

The often interlinked issues of sex, power and ethics require more attention than they receive. The focus on issues of unwarranted sexual advances towards women in the majority of cases sometimes overshadows the power dynamics that inspire the advances in the first place. Placing the spotlight in the right area would ensure that we do not have a blind spot where men are experiencing similar abuse and yet are powerless to bring attention to their plight. Studies such as the one cited in a recent Finweek article (“Exploiting beauty in the workplace” by Catherine Hakim, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics), which focus on women exploiting their assets in the workplace, but not men, don’t help as they obscure the issue. The issue is power games and not merely physical differences (sex). Hakim believes professional women should use their “erotic capital” – beauty, sex appeal, charm, dress sense, liveliness and fitness – to get ahead at work. Why not include men in the study, unless is a given that the research environment (assumed to be Britain) is not evolving to include women in leadership positions?

Where to from here?

As a woman, I do not minimise the trauma and disrespect women experience when unwanted sexual advances are made and when the message is very clear that without responding positively, you can forget the business contract you are pursuing or the recommendation to that board or that promotion. The reality is that thousands of women, whether in corporate and entrepreneurs, encounter such distasteful behaviour every day. We often choose to overlook it because we fear it will stand in the way of us attaining our own goals, and thus we become complicit in this unethical behaviour. And at times, we are willing to excuse certain ethical transgressions and comply in order to get ahead. 

What is critical for me in this conversation of ‘Ethics, Sex and Power’ is to not lose the emphasis on the POWER dimension because I believe that is the deciding factor to the behaviour. Whether you are a man or a woman, you can be subjected to unwanted advances and you can abuse your position and status because of a superior power position in a particular context.

I look forward to further exploring this topic with you at the Ethics, Sex and Power Seminar on 15 March 2012 at Emoyeni, Parktown. Register and pay before 29 February 2012.

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