Monday, October 27, 2014

How Apple and Facebook have taken gender discrimination to a new level

Over the last week or so we have seen a vibrant debate unfolding after the announcement of Apple and Facebook’s latest benefit: Female employees can store and freeze their eggs on the company’s dime so that they can postpone pregnancy beyond the phase where they might want to just focus on their careers.

I put the case up for debate in my undergraduate classes on business ethics this week. It was a fascinating experience. To start, we assessed the upshot. There is a surge of female professionals who attempt at pregnancy in their forties and thus a surge in in-vitro fertilization and a host of other avenues to late motherhood luckily provided by progress in obstetrics these days. But there is also a fair number of women who just have to suck it up that by the time they can put their head around having babies, that ship has sailed.

Here, such an offer seems to be a big benefit. You can progress in an environment where your commitment to the job is 24/7 – like your male colleagues – and still enjoy motherhood at a later stage. And your babies will be built out of genetic material that is as good as it would have been had you dared at the impossible of merging both, career and motherhood. This policy indeed provides women with more options, more choice to freely decide what to do with their lives, their careers and their aspirations at the personal level.

But upon further scrutiny, my students unearthed three major problems. The first is fairly obvious: what is offered as an ‘option’ by the company may quickly become the ‘default’. What will happen now at Google if a 32 year old women tells her boss she wants to go on maternity leave? Given the options, she makes a statement clear and loud that she prefers her personal priorities over the company’s. In organizations, rules prescribe roles. This new option potentially excludes motherhood from what a ‘high potential’, future executive at Google should prioritize in her most fertile years.

A second focus of discussion turned out to unveil the unsaid. What about the male role in child bearing and rearing? The tacit assumption of such a policy seems to be that not a single of Apple or Facebook’s male employees will ever need similar help or support in his career because of having children. In some ways then the policy just reflects rather problematic gender stereotypes: mothers get distracted from their careers by having children; fathers just carry on as if nothing has happened. Yes, there are different biological constraints on women; but having and rearing a child also totally involves the father – unless he is a complete moron (or Google and Facebook’s model employee?). Fair enough, Facebook also extends an option to male employees to freeze their sperms: after all, a significant threat to post-40 pregnancy is not the female egg, but increasingly the deterioration of male sperm at that age. But the message is the same: postpone that baby business!

Which leads to a third objection which cuts to a deeper level. The age between 25 and 35 for a woman is the phase where biologically motherhood is the most likely. It is also the phase where most women are at the prime of their adulthood: mature enough to make tough life choices on partners and lifestyles, but also vibrant and physically energetic enough to dedicate full energy to their pursuits. By offering this option, aren’t Apple and Facebook just saying: ‘Give us the best years of your life, your kids can put up with whatever is left of you at a later stage’?

One of my students put it more bluntly: ‘If you translated this policy to other forms of discrimination in the workplace, such as racial discrimination, this would amount to saying to black people: “Look, you are very welcome here, but just to make it easier, we offer you this cream that will make your skin as white as everybody else’s here.”’ This new benefit essentially offers to a woman to be just like her male colleagues, happily stripped of all her female ‘impediments’. In some ways, that is gender discrimination at its worst.

Apple and Facebook deserve praise to recognize a common and pressing problem. Admittedly, they have policies regarding maternity benefits and childcare that are better than most other American companies. But the moral imagination they applied to this particular solution falls short of the creativity that made them billion dollar companies. If they are willing to throw $20,000 at the problem, why not offer more choice to both female and male employees? The women  (and men) contributing to the company are not just ‘human resources’ ready for maximum exploitation.
Artwork by Keoni Kabral, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The future of business ethics research

This weekend offered an interesting opportunity to discuss, dissect and reflect on the state of the art of business ethics research and some of its future trajectories. At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania a small group of business ethics scholars gathered from all around the globe to celebrate and honor the work of one of the faculty members, Professor Thomas Donaldson. Donaldson, a philosopher by training, can be considered one of the pioneers of the business ethics field and one of its most longstanding and certainly most influential voices over the last four decades.

Some of the speeches at the event focused on appraising and celebrating Donaldson’s impressive body of work, including many humorous interjections on Donaldson as a person by some of his contemporaries such as Norman Bowie, George Brenkert, Ed Freeman, or Pat Werhane. Most of the day though was dedicated to work by scholars who build on, extend, refine, and continue some of Donaldson’s work, including also entering a critical dialogue with his ideas.

Thomas Donaldson
Donaldson’s work is not easy to summarize as it covers a number of areas, incl. ‘hard core’ philosophical topics. Without downplaying any of those, one could argue that his work (mostly manifest in books and seminal articles) on corporations and morality, ethics and international business, and Integrative Social Contract Theory (ISCT, together with Thomas Dunfee) count among the most influential ones for the business ethics field. Much of the day was dedicated to develop those ideas further, and in particular ISCT seems to still have a long life ahead.

Taking a step back after reflecting on Donaldson’s work for 1½ days, it strikes that next to his solid contributions it is both his approach and his choice of topics decades ago which have maybe the strongest potential to inform work in business ethics for decades to come. Donaldson deserves credit for breaking out of the extant consensus in both, the narrower business ethics field as well as the general gist in management studies with an innovative take on at least three core research topics.

What is the unit of analysis in business ethics? 

For most of its short history, certainly until the mid 1990ties scholarly work in business ethics was mostly looking at the organizational level, or even below that, at the level of individual decision-making. What is to admire about Donaldson as a scholar is that he broke out of that consensus, most remarkably when publishing his book and papers around ISCT. The basic tenet of ISCT is that whatever happens in terms of ethical or unethical behavior in businesses is intricately linked to the outside world of business, to institutions that govern business, to wider socio political processes that incentivize or constrain whatever businesses – let alone individuals within them – are doing.

There are solid grounds to argue that this approach to researching ethical issues in business is still of highest relevance today.  On the opening panel of the conference Professor Margaret Blair gave a somewhat sobering account of recent court decisions in US corporate law. Blair, a longstanding authority and critic of the current shareholder dominated view of the firm, gave a short tour d’horizon of court rulings reflecting shareholder dominance as being stronger as never before (Ebay vs Newmark, Trado, CitizensUnited, Hobby Lobby). When the strongest institutions (in this case the law) governing business advocate a model of the firm which flies in the face of much of the basic tenets of the field of business ethics it appears that the odds are very much stacked against any of the aspirations of the field ever coming to fruition in the real world. 

The inspiration then from Donaldson’s work for business ethics scholars may be to further and refine some of the ‘Donaldsonian Themes’ (so the title of the conference); but it is fair to argue that the vision, courage and intellectual entrepreneurship to come up with new approaches of conceptualizing business in its wider societal context is maybe the biggest example and benchmark Donaldson has left for a next generation of business ethics scholars. Be it the relation of business and politics, be it the role of business in economic inequality, or be it the role of business in new technologies and big data – these are all new ethical challenges which ask for wider and deeper conceptualizations of the role of business and its embeddedness in wider society.

Business ethics is not an epiphenomenon

For most of its history, and to some degree still today, business ethics has been considered as a subfield of management that deals with side-effects of business, with fringe occurrences, with phenomena, that maybe are of interest to the odd practitioner here and there. Certainly many scholars in the core disciplines of management, such as strategy or finance would echo such a view.

During the conference many colleagues highlighted that Donaldson throughout his career has worked in overcoming this categorization of business ethics work. That includes a lot of his writings but also his service to the academic community of management scholars. He was actively leading the subgroup ‘Social Issues inManagement’ of the Academy of Management but also engaged in a number of ‘field constituting’ ventures. Most notably his time as Associate Editor of Academy of Management Review (the top journal  for management theory) in the mid 2000s has led to a spate of work originating from scholars in the business ethics field, which was developed under his editorship into papers that speak to the core of the management discipline.

The purpose of the firm, the effect of business on the ecology, the role of business in development or peace – just to name a few examples of business ethics topics – are no longer side-shows. Many of these questions - certainly post financial crisis – are topics that touch the core of the management discipline. Donaldson has left a great example that business ethics scholars have to raise their voice louder and speak to a wider community. Business ethics has something to bring to the party, and Donaldson in is writing and service, has shown how to do this really well.

Management research is a multi-disciplinary venture

One of the things that stands out when looking at Donaldson’s work over four decades is that research in management as an applied discipline is best when it is phenomenon driven. That partly explains the enormous variety of issues he has taken on. The intellectual rigour, theoretical precision and an impressive skill at interesting and accessible writing is what has set a benchmark for ongoing scholarly work. What strikes most is his success – together with other colleagues – to establish philosophy as a legitimate core discipline in management research.

Many management scholars still consider economics to be the main theoretical foundation of management studies – a view maybe still strongest reflected in some of the management studies communities in Europe. In the 1960s, certainly with the rise and growth of marketing and parts of organizational behavior research, we can now consider psychology as a legitimate member of the canonized disciplines of management inquiry.

But this project of widening the theoretical and disciplinary avenues to management research is not over yet. In his writing Donaldson has certainly elevated philosophy as a strong candidate; in his editorial work at AMR he has contributed to make approaches from political science, sociology and others more familiar to the core community of management researchers. We can argue that continuing to widen the disciplinary focus of research in management is truly a ‘Donaldsonian Theme’ and a task for current and future generations of business ethics scholars.

To conclude then, just this week Rolling Stone magazine ran a story on the influence of the Koch brothers on American politics. So as an afterthought - at the end of the conference there was arguably one topic conspicuously absent during the discussion: namely the phenomenon of power (corporate or political, alike). Looking at contemporary debates on, for instance, income inequality or on the roots and fallout of the financial crisis, this seems a somewhat conspicuous omission.  One explanation though could be that – as Richard DeGeorge, chair of the philosophy department during Donaldson’s PhD studies, pointed out at the conference – Donaldson as a student did not take too much liking in Karl Marx’ writings…

The good news then is that this weekend’s conference was not a celebration of Donaldson’s retirement. He will continue as Wharton faculty to be an active scholar and thus surprise, challenge and inspire us hopefully for many more years to come.

Top photo by frankrizzo805, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.