Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Moral Licensing

It’s the latest in moral thinking, or, what passes for moral thinking.

Here is the problem. Researchers have discovered that when companies institute diversity programs in order to advance the careers of women managers, the men who are subjected to these programs end up hiring more men.

If the programs are designed to nudge male managers toward a certain kind of behavior, they are failing. We ought to understand by now that when people try to influence behavior by depriving others of their free choice, we tend to react by doing exactly what they are telling us not to do.

This is hardly the only possible explanation. Those who purvey diversity programs have arrived at another conclusion. It's called moral licensing.

They have concluded that once the male managers perform a virtuous action—like attending a diversity seminar—they feel that they have extra credits for their moral virtue. Thus, they grant themselves the right to perform actions that are morally vicious—like hiring the best person for the job.


Imagine that you’re the CEO of a male-dominated tech company that’s been excoriated for its lack of women managers. You decide to introduce a new leadership program for women.

In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, such programs can wind up exacerbating existing gender bias at your company, making it even less likely that women are compensated fairly or rise to the top.

Much like a virus, gender bias mutates and adapts to its environment—often in strange and surprising ways. Consider nascent research suggesting that when we perform a good deed now, we may be more likely to do something less virtuous later. This phenomenon is known as moral licensing, and it has all sorts of implications for gender inequality.

One might ask who runs around excoriating CEOs for their lack of gender diversity? And which CEO would respond to such rudeness by introducing a leadership program for women, that is, a leadership program that discriminates against men?

Note the unexamined assumptions that underlie the analysis.

First, the researchers designate the ability to distinguish between men and women to be a virus, thus, a disease.

Second, the researchers assume that promoting a woman is a virtuous action.

Third, they assume that promoting a man is a vice.

Fourth, they assume that the only reason men are promoted over women in the tech world is bias.

Fifth, they assume that one or another form of indoctrination will cleanse the souls of management, thereby leading them to promote more women.

Sixth, they assume that any manager who does not do as the designers of the indoctrination program would wish has had his soul so filled with virtue that he feels empowered to indulge his vice.

Obviously, it’s all a pile of nonsense. And yet, it is presented as advanced moral thinking.

Why does it fail? Because it ignores the fact that the purpose of business is to make a profit for shareholders, not to hire people who fill diversity quotas.

To be fair, the moral philosophers who run these studies have produced other studies that have shown, scientifically or scientistically, that companies that have more women in more managerial positions make more profit.

That may well be the case. But, if it is the case, marketplace competition will favor companies that hire more women managers. Companies that fail to do so will fall behind and will change their ways… without having any diversity coaches excoriating them for not doing so.

Those who believe in the value of having more women managers can point to the example of Yahoo!, a company that makes it a point to hire women over men managers. How’s Yahoo! doing these days? I have reported on the sorry record of CEO Marissa Mayer here and here.

And one must also note, as per yesterday’s post, that a woman who is the mother of children might not be looking for more authority, more responsibility and more time on the job. She might not want to be what upper management requires.

If this is true, it makes some sense that executives would hesitate about hiring women managers, especially women who are of childbearing age or who have small children at home.

And this does not even consider the effect on morale when men believe that women are being promoted ahead of them in order to fulfill a diversity quota. Do you honestly believe that the woman’s ability to manage effectively will not be undermined by the perception that she has been promoted for reasons that have less to do with competence and more to do with gender?

Yet, according to the ideologically driven research, managers who do not promote enough women are male chauvinists and sexists. Ideologues do not care about how well the company functions and do not believe that executives should hire people for reasons that make sense to them.

Ideologues take it as axiomatic, as an article of faith that there is no significant difference between men and women. Anyone who treats women different from men must be a sexist bigot.

These views defy reason and defy reality.

Let us not forget that people who feel that they are being subjected to indoctrination, who are being told what they are and are not allowed to think, might very well react against the oppression.

Consider this:

Consider one 2001 study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University. It found that most men and women readily disagreed with statements like “most women are better off at home taking care of the children,” or “most women are not really smart.” But after subjects vocalized their objections to such sexist statements, they were more likely to prefer a male job applicant instead of a woman for a job in the building industry, a stereotypically masculine environment. (The bar for a virtuous deed is apparently not very high.)

Do you think that gender might matter for a manager in a stereotypically male environment? Do you think that perhaps a male manager might be more respected by a group of men in construction than a female manager? Do you think that any executive who hires a male manager is bigoted or competent?

Why is it sexist to believe that women do better at taking care of children? It is a uniform constant throughout human history? Why do the ideologues believe that they are right and that human experience is wrong?

Didn’t the woman we quoted in yesterday’s post assert as much? What happens when women themselves prefer to stay home or believe that they are better at bringing up their children than their husbands? Are they being sexist?


Sam L. said...

Affirmative Action poisons the well. By itself, it engenders doubt.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Thus, they grant themselves the right to perform actions that are morally vicious—like hiring the best person for the job. Huh?

People always would like to say "equal opportunity" over diversity quotas, but in practice we all know things are not equal, and sometimes you have to give unequal incentives just to reach equal opportunity.

I think men are perfectly willing to support women, but it does seem like for top leadership positions, women have a disadvantage, by stereotypes or actual skills or both.

Its nice to say "shareholders demand the best person for the job" but actually the skill sets of leaders change during the duration of a company. If we assume men take more risks, and most startups fail, then we might want men in leadership positions, even if 90% of them fail, then 10% that survive would not have survived by a more cautious business plan.

On the other hand, companies like Enron can become cancerous with too many highly competitive men, all competing to push the limits of a company's viability (and legality), and it all looks good until the truth of the corners cut finally become apparent, and shareholders will lose everything.

I don't think Enron's corruption could have been "saved" by women in leadership positions, but after things fail, we can't say things would have been much worse.

I've been also hearing about universities having EXTREME over-representation of liberals, especially in the soft sciences, so an "echo chamber" can develop that is biased towards hiring professors who already agree with the liberal philosophy, and you can imagine "code words" of language being consciously or unconsciously used to help people "know" what team the interviewee is on.

So maybe that gives some context to bias. "Best person for the job" suggests a single dimension of excellence, and assumes "high risk, high ambition, high competition" are the best skills for a leader in all contexts.

So it may be true, if you have to pick ONE CEO, in many cases we might find 99% of the best candidates are men, but if you're picking a dozen leaders like for a board of directors, or hiree boards, it makes more sense to use "quotas" of inclusion, to make sure some minority representatives are included, and improve the chances that diversity will protect against self-deception.

Sam L. said...

How do we know who's best? We don't. We make the best guess we can.