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Women are more concerned than men about an ethical workplace.

Kelsea Ballantyne, who is working toward a Master of Business Administration degree at the University of Michigan, doesn’t believe she could bring herself to work for the major oil companies.

In her eyes, they simply don’t measure up to her moral and ethical standards

“Reputation is important to me, whether it’s about fighting for human rights, fair labour standards or sustainability,” said Ballantyne, who is simultaneously getting a master’s degree from the university’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. To join a company like BP or Exxon, “I would really have to feel that I could be a change agent from inside.”

For her 2014 summer internship , Ballantyne turned down an offer from Ford Motor Co that paid twice as much as the job she accepted at a Detroit nonprofit organisation. She wants to help the nonprofit create a business model for sustainable operations, which she believes will be more rewarding than working for the automaker.

Many students, especially women, say they want to join well-regarded organisations where their work will benefit society and the environment. But faced with student loans and other financial responsibilities, not all can be as choosey as Ballantyne. Yet as the employment market improves, corporate reputation could become a deciding factor for more job seekers.

Wide gender gap

About 60% of employed women consider it very important to work for a company that prioritises social and environmental responsibility, compared with 38% of men, according to a 2012 study by the nonprofit group Net Impact and Rutgers University. What’s more, 30% of working women said they would take a pay cut for a job that makes an impact, compared with 19% of men.

Erin Geoffroy is among those who would sacrifice money for a meaningful career. “I have turned down recruiters from consumer-packaged-goods companies because I didn’t feel their values aligned with mine,” said Geoffroy, an MBA student and president of the Net Impact chapter at the University of Georgia. “I don’t want to work for a company that has only one team focused on corporate social responsibility and hasn’t made it part of major business functions like marketing.”

Other research also indicates that women are more concerned than men about an ethical workplace. In a recent academic study, women showed less interest than men when given job descriptions that required ethical compromises. “Women didn’t even want to apply when the job posting said they had to do whatever it takes to make money, but they were as interested as men when the posting said they should do the right thing in morally questionable situations,” said Laura Kray, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the study.

Financial-services firms and oil companies face the greatest resistance from millennials, who were born in the 1980s and 1990s. About 22% of women and 20% of men in the millennial generation said they would avoid financial services solely because of its image, while 17% of women and about 11% of men felt the same way about oil and gas companies, according to a 2011 study of millennials in 75 countries by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

A separate survey this year found banking and energy significantly less appealing to women than men in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France and Italy. But women were nearly as interested as men in the energy industry in Russia, India and Brazil, and even more drawn to banking than men in China, India and Japan, according to the study by Universum, a research and consulting firm that asked undergraduate business students to list their industry preferences.

More than reputation

Some researchers are skeptical of the many surveys showing that corporate reputation significantly influences people’s career decisions. They argue that people’s behaviour often doesn’t square with their survey responses and that reputation is just one of many factors job candidates consider.

In an Australian study that asked participants to make choices between hypothetical job contracts, the researchers determined that fundamental features such as compensation and time demands mattered more than corporate reputation. “You need a good enough reputation because reputation is part of people’s decision calculus,” said Timothy Devinney, a professor at Leeds University Business School in the UK and co-author of the Australian study. “People may not want to work for evil companies, but they don’t need a superior reputation” to attract employees.

Indeed, some energy companies and banks say they are recruiting many students despite their industries’ tainted reputations. Royal Dutch Shell seeks to hire more than 1,000 graduates globally each year and typically fills at least 95% of the jobs, a spokesman said. “In our campus recruitment road shows, we highlight the full range of activities that Shell undertakes and, of course, address any issues, including reputational ones, which may be raised.”

Even if graduates end up working for companies they don’t admire, they needn’t abandon their aspirations to make the world a better place. They can try to influence their employer’s policies on social responsibility, sustainability and ethics, or they can take the business skills they develop to other more respected organisations.

“I don’t want anyone to sell their soul, but I tell women to be open to companies they might be skeptical about,” said Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, a consortium of companies and business schools that aims to develop more women leaders. “They can get great training and experience at some major corporations to take to a nonprofit as either an executive or a board member. They can also put their own money — or the company’s money — into organisations that support the issues they feel passionate about.”

Sangster is concerned that women will too easily walk away from industries with tarnished reputations, such as investment banking, where they might have a positive impact. “Those companies need more women to help provide balance in decision making and risk taking,” she said. “That could go a long way toward making the businesses more responsible and improving their image.”

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