Want an Ethical Leader – Hire a Woman

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

Talent-seeking took a new turn recently. Women are now on course to overtake men in winning the high-skill jobs over the next six years. [1]skills

Meanwhile, many companies also report they’re not developing the right talent for leadership roles. [2] In today’s corporate climate what they need is not just leadership but “ethical leadership.”

With men falling to keep up and falling further behind in qualifications, for many employers therefore a sensible starting point in developing the right leadership skills could be: look intensely amongst women for the right talent.

This in turn leads to the questions “Will our women leaders be more ethical than men? Evidence in favour of women being more ethical leaders is slowly stacking up. For example, once they reach powerful positions they appear to show more ethical behaviour, better management of a company and achieve a happier bottom line. [3]

Companies with at least one female director were 20% less likely to file for bankruptcy and those with higher representations of females on their boards had better financial performance” International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics

Forbes, February 2013

Also in in pursuit of success at work, they’re less likely to compromise their ethics and be more Poster-Ethical leaderssensitive to ethical concerns. In particular, women think corporate ethical codes can make a difference, contrasting with male colleagues who remain more sceptical. [4]

Women posses the built-in advantages of strong emotional and social skills. These are much- needed in today’s workplace and destined to grow in importance. They help equip leaders to more readily pay attention to ethical concerns, and to be more open to “hear” employees who raise ethical issues at work.

RIGHT WRONGDemand for female “strengths” including their ethical DNA, may indeed start to threaten traditional male preserves.

For example, negotiating is typically seen by men as a masculine domain. Success or failure here challenges the male sense of masculinity more than femininity.

When masculinity is in the firing line ethics too easily goes for cover. According to a number of studies, manhood is relatively fragile and precarious. When it’s challenged men tend to become more aggressive and defensive. To ensure victory they will often sacrifice moral standards if it means winning.

Thus the evidence is building that men generally set lower ethical standards than women, such as disclosing certain information or condemning a lie. If you don’t want a leader who is willing to engage in shady tactics, then appointing a woman may be a smart move.

Seeing something as “unethical” should really be gender-neutral. Yet research suggests it is not. At least one recent study for example, found regarding something as ethically dubious depends on certain feminine traits, such as affection, compassion, and understanding.

As one expert puts it diplomatically, men are more likely to be “ethically lenient”. This translates as they’re likely to be less ethical. [5]

Women for instance, find it unacceptable for a company to make equipment used by police and military to extract information from prisoners, while many men find this less objectionable.

Another reason women may be less inclined to be “ethically lenient”, is they’re more risk-averse than risk towards south men. Studies show men are generally more willing men to take risks involving decisions on behalf of a large group.

Based on this therefore, choosing a woman leader could be a way for a company to boost both its leadership skills base and its ethical credentials.  [6]

However women are not necessarily more ethical than men, though some believe that. It’s just that their basic approach tends to favour a more ethical stance– less willingness to tolerate “ethical lenience” and more ability to see ethical implications in situations.

egoMen tend to apply ethical standards based on their ego and to see certain decisions as “just business” according to one leading researcher.

In contrast women see ethical decisions as “beyond business and outside of ego. Again, this has important implications for companies seeking both to develop leadership skills and their choice of leaders.[7]

To date we’re used to seeing more men leaders than women. Consequently there is often surprise if a woman emerges at the top When Rhona Fairhead was recently named a favourite for the high profile job of Chairman of the BBC—“Rhona who?” reverberated around the corridors of the corporation.

That could start to change as word gets out that women actually do make better leaders than men, let alone ethical leaders.



Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

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  1. Leona Helmsley loves this article.

    Sexism is good.

    Assuming 100% of women are angels is interesting.

    Want an ethical leader? How about hiring people with a conscience! That is not limited to sex, race, age, etc. It is dependent on good character!