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Do Female and Male Public Administrators Differ Ethically?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard M. Jacobs
May 17, 2016

An Ethics Research Center (ERC) study assists in answering this question. The study, investigating follower perceptions of female and male business leaders, identified ethical differences exhibited in the workplace and what implications those differences have for the workplace.

The findings


Male and female business leaders demonstrate similar priorities: They maintain integrity in the organization and treat followers fairly and with dignity. They both also appear to be willing to sacrifice ethical standards to achieve business goals.

Followers also identified two differences in the ethical climate of their organizations:

  • Females—including female leaders—reported feeling greater pressure to compromise ethical standards.
  • Female followers reported being more likely to experience retaliation for reporting workplace misconduct.

The outcome? Regardless of sex, compromising ethical standards and retaliation generates skepticism concerning a leader’s commitment to ethical conduct. In this regard, females were more skeptical than males.

One last finding: When confronting a crisis, male leaders were slightly more concerned about protecting the organization’s brand than maintaining follower trust. Female leaders had a somewhat greater degree of concern for their followers’ well-being.

The bottom line

Upholding integrity in the organization appears to be paramount. Doing so requires treating followers fairly and with dignity. When leaders sacrifice their ethical standards to protect the brand, they fail as ethical leaders.

Limiting, if not eliminating that pressure may be critical. As both female and male leaders feel pressured to compromise ethical standards, dealing directly with that pressure is paramount.

Female leaders—who appear to experience greater pressure to compromise their ethical standards—may have a lesson to teach their male counterparts.

Awareness of this pressure appears to cause female leaders to deliberate. In turn, female leaders prioritize what their conduct communicates to followers about their character.

Conversely, male leaders experience less pressure to compromise their ethical standards, but are less resistant to this pressure because they prioritize brand. Taking a cue from their female counterparts, male leaders might strive to be more deliberative, especially by prioritizing what their conduct communicates about their character.

Lastly, when confronting a crisis, be sure to prioritize ethical standards not brand. The failure to do so erodes follower trust and increases skepticism—both female and male followers—concerning a leader’s commitment to ethical conduct.

Some applications to public administration

How might public administrators—both females and males—prioritize ethical standards and encourage their followers to do the right thing, not fearing retaliation?

The ASPA Code of Ethics reminds public administrators they are obliged to demonstrate personal integrity (#6) and to promote ethical organizations (#7).

They demonstrate personal integrity by prioritizing ethical standards and adhering to the highest standards of conduct which inspire confidence and trust. In particular, public administrators:

  • Exercise integrity, courage, compassion, benevolence and optimism.
  • Maintain truthfulness and honesty and not compromise either for advancement, honor or personal gain.
  • Resist political, organizational and personal pressures to compromise ethical integrity and principles and support others who are subject to these pressures.
  • Accept individual responsibility for their actions and the consequences of their actions.
  • Guard against using public position for personal gain or to advance personal or private interests.
  • Zealously guard against conflict of interest or its appearance by disclose any interests that may affect objectivity in making decisions and recusing themselves from participation in those decisions.
  • Conduct official acts without partisanship or favoritism.
  • Ensure that others receive credit for their work and contributions.

Public administrators promote ethical organizations by striving to attain the highest standards of ethics, stewardship and public service. In particular, they:

  • Work to establish procedures that hold individuals and the organization accountable for their conduct and support these procedures with clear reporting of activities and accomplishments.
  • Encourage open expression of views by staff members within the organization and providing administrative channels for dissent by protecting the whistleblowing rights of public employees, providing assurance of due process and safeguards against reprisal and giving support to colleagues who are victims of retribution.
  • Correct instances of wrongdoing or report them to superiors and, if remedies cannot be assured by reporting wrongdoing internally, seeking external sources or agencies for review and action.
  • Support merit principles that promote excellence, competence and professionalism in the selection and promotion of public officials and employees and protect against biased, arbitrary and capricious actions.
  • Encourage organizations to adopt, distribute and periodically review a code of ethics as a living document that applies principles of this code and other relevant codes to the specific mission and conditions of the organization.

By prioritizing these standards in the decision-making process, public administrators communicate to followers how they might do the right thing, not fearing retaliation. Additionally, followers will be less likely to become skeptical of the administrator’s commitment to build a more ethical workplace.

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a professor of public administration at Villanova University and chair-elect of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected].

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One Response to Do Female and Male Public Administrators Differ Ethically?

  1. Norm Sims Reply

    May 18, 2016 at 9:43 am

    Perhaps it would be useful for someone to demonstrate the evidence-based link between what “business leaders” in the survey think and what “public administrators” might think. It’s missing here, unless one believes that “business leaders” are subject to the same career and personal drivers as those of us in government. I suspect, based upon personal experience and various studies I have read, that there are differences as there are much different drivers.

    Some of these may even arise based upon the operational definition of “business leader”, which wasn’t addressed in the article or the document it linked to. I would be interested in seeing work that uses a less ambiguous subject group; for example, 1st vs. 2nd. vs. 3rd line managers, taking into account positional distance from the CEO (in business) or the Dept. head (in government).

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