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Women in Leadership and Moral Licensing

Updated: May 6, 2019

Sally Ride 1984

We celebrate the firsts. It is empowering and inspiring. We imagine ourselves in the spaces that have seen new accomplishments by those that look like us. For me, the first American woman in space impacted the way I saw myself in the world. I was very young, but I knew that something shifted suddenly in my expectations of what my life might be.

It’s the same for others who follow the accomplishments of those with whom we share an affinity. We follow the websites, the social media pages, and find ourselves inspired. We can too, because they did.

But can we really?

Using women as an example, the first woman to break through a barrier and become the “first” did not necessarily open the floodgates. For example, Janet Guthrie was the first women to race in the Indy 500 with much controversy, in 1977. She raced again in the Daytona 500 and placed 9th with a broken wrist in 1978. Another woman didn’t qualify for the prestigious Indy track again until 2007.

The first female to serve in a presidential cabinet was Frances Perkins who was Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Next was Oveta Hobby, who headed up the newly created Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953, appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was 20 years before another woman served, appointed by President Gerald Ford, in 1975, named Carla Hills as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

This stuttering start or “leaky pipeline” is common for women in the advancement to leadership. It’s important that we recognize and celebrate the firsts, the seconds, and push for the flood, but it’s also important to recognize what is happening in the background.

Introduce moral self-licensing.

Merritt (2010) theorized that “moral self-licensing occurs when past moral behavior makes people more likely to do potentially immoral things without worrying about feeling or appearing immoral.”

As an example, an organization makes its first major diversity hire, opening the doors of inclusion with the best of intentions. However, the first remains the only for an extended period. By using the diversity hire to establish their commitment to inclusion, leadership may feel justified in returning to exclusionary practices based on their previous “good deeds”. (This is also the place where people make their immoral behavioral acceptable. “I can’t be biased because I ‘befriended, voted, allied, etc.’”)

Breaking into workforce leadership is a prime example where #womenempoweringwomen comes strongly into play, especially if we consider that the rule of thumb is that a feeling of belonging is attained when there’s an affinity with 30% or more of the overall group (Srikantan, 1968). If the path to leadership is bottle-necked and slowed to a trickle, it only makes sense for the women to make it through to pull other women with them. It’s important to note that lifting each other up is a mitigation. It’s necessary and it’s integral to progress, but it’s not the answer.

The real work is in constantly reevaluating the organization on a structural level. The status quo should be challenged, and when it is an external challenge, it should be regarded with interest and not just flagrant disregard. What other processes exist (or don’t yet exist) to make sure that the pipeline to leadership is an equitable one? How can we eliminate bias, create equal promotion opportunities, change the way parenting (and the accompanying obligations) are viewed, and alter the career pathways for women in the workplace?


Merritt, A. C., Effron, D. A. and Monin, B. (2010), Moral Self‐Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4: 344-357. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00263.x

Srikantan, K. (1968) “A curious mathematical property,” American Sociological, 3(2), pp. 154–155.

Melissa A. Walker, Ph.D.

Melissa is currently a Director within Educational Equity at Penn State University—with a secondary position within the university as a Learning Partner at Penn State's Workplace Learning and Performance where she provides diversity, team building, accountability, and leadership training for all personnel. She is also the founder of Training and Development Network, LLC, which provides performance consulting and training nationwide.

Prior to joining the University, Melissa spent over 15 years working in the software industry developing training curriculum for human resources, diversity, leadership, teamwork, and customer service. She has run volunteer training programs for domestic violence centers in Santa Ana, CA, as well as volunteer research and training design for the CA Dept. of Corrections.

Melissa has a BA in English Literature, a Master’s in Education, and a PhD in Workforce Education from Penn State University.

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