12/07/2011 01:04 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

Are Women Cheating More Now, Closing A Gender Gap To Get Ahead?

The Long Island SAT cheating ring uncovered last month captured, for many pundits, several dark truths of our times: the crushing competitiveness of college admissions, the moral bankruptcy of the nation's youth and the power of the moneyed to buy their way ahead. But one element of the scandal raised no comment: Almost everyone involved was a guy.

All of the test takers were male, according to The New York Times, and only one of the 20 arrested suspects has been identified as female.

The case seems to conform with longstanding evidence that cheaters are more likely to be male. The bad news is that scholars of cheating patterns have seen the gender gap shrink -- and not in the direction of greater honesty.

Studies dating back to the 1960s have found that men cheat significantly more than women in college. Why? Women are more socialized to obey rules, researchers like Stephen Tibbets, David Ward and Wendy Beck have concluded. Traditionally, girls have two stark options, to be praised as "good girls" or stigmatized as "bad girls." But boys are accepted by their peers and adults whether they are good or bad. So more of them feel free to be bad.

Once grown up, women in business are often viewed as more trustworthy than men. In 2009, the citizens of Iceland elected their first female prime minister, who, as Hanna Rosin noted in The Atlantic, campaigned to end the "age of testosterone" that was supposedly to blame for wrecking that country's economy. And there is some research to support the idea that women have more integrity. One study found that female corporate directors were more interested in restricting executive pay and increasing risk management than their male counterparts. Dr. Alice Eagly, who studies gender leadership, has found that women in positions of power behave more ethically than men.

Bottom Line Mentality

But the cheating gender gap may not last long, according to Don McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University Business School who has studied academic integrity for more than 20 years. In a 1997 study, McCabe found that while there were significant cheating differences by gender, those differences nearly vanish when comparing men and women in the same major.

Business and engineering studies, two of the most male-dominated disciplines, are plagued by cheating more than others. This has been found at the undergraduate level and, perhaps more disturbingly, at the graduate level. In a McCabe survey of 5,000 graduate students in the early 2000s, 56 percent of MBA candidates and 54 percent of budding engineers admitted to cheating at least once in the past year, compared to 39 percent of students in the social sciences and humanities.

The cheaters' attitude "seems to be, 'Hey, you have to -- everybody else does it,'" McCabe explained at the time. "And business students already have developed a bottom line mentality -- anything to get the job done, however you have to do it."

Women aren't above that kind of thinking. "As they enter business and engineering, they've taken on the habits of the men to remain competitive," McCabe told The Huffington Post.

When he held focus groups with female business students, they admitted this themselves. "As they enter this competitive environment, they feel disadvantaged by what these men are doing. They didn't like it, but they started to do it. Now it's part of them," McCabe said.

Most of the cheating gap, he concluded, was just a reflection of women's underrepresentation in business, engineering and other training grounds for captains of industry. Women aren't immune to all that pressure, it turns out, and will adopt the same risky strategies that can help them succeed and the shortcuts that can help them cope.

"When I did a study in the early 1990s, I saw this difference," McCabe said about the cheating gap. "But certainly by 2005, it was gone."

And female students are making their way into traditionally male sectors. Women took home 22 percent of engineering doctoral degrees in 2008, up from 12 percent in 1995, according to the National Science Foundation. And women will make up 39 percent of the Harvard Business School class of 2013, up from 28 percent in 1995 and 11 percent in 1975.

Gap Not Gone

On the other hand, McCabe noted that his studies are based on self-reporting and that far more women mail back their questionnaires, perhaps because there are more men guilty of ethical slips who don't want to confess. The numbers today still show a gender gap, even if it's smaller than in the past.

Although the Educational Testing Service didn't track the gender of those 1,000 students whose SAT scores were canceled last year for suspected fraud, the cheating rates at some of America's larger universities provide some insight into who currently cheats more.

At the University of Texas at Austin (38,000 undergraduates), the school recorded hundreds of alleged academic violations annually between 2003 and 2010, and male students were behind an average of 59.5 percent of them each year. At Pennsylvania State University's University Park campus (nearly 45,000 undergraduates), a few hundred students were investigated for breaking the academic codes of conduct each year between 2008 and 2011, a spokesperson told The Huffington Post, and 61 to 63 percent were men. At the University of Colorado's Boulder campus (30,000 undergraduate and graduate students), men were responsible for 62 percent of cheating incidents in the 2009-10 academic year, according to a university representative.

At the high school level as well, girls still seem to value succeeding honestly more than boys do. Every two years, the Josephson Institute, a nonprofit that works to improve ethics in the U.S., takes a snapshot of the morals of America's youth. (The themes every year: drugs, sex and guns; the conclusion every year: be afraid.) In last year's survey of 40,000 high school students, 27 percent of boys, but only 15 percent of girls, agreed with the statement, "People who are willing to lie, cheat, or break the rules are more likely to succeed than people who are not."

The statement "A person has to cheat or lie sometimes to succeed" elicited agreement from 47 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls. "My parents/guardians would rather I cheat than get bad grades": 10 percent of boys and 5 percent of girls. "It's not cheating if everyone is doing it": 20 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls.

What makes boys more willing to cheat is another story. (Video-game cheat codes? Juiced-up third basemen? Internet porn?) But girls, at least at a young age, are evidently the more honest sex. And when those Long Island students were presented with the option to buy an SAT score or sell one for a few thousand dollars, only one girl, as far as we know, said yes.

But if those girls who said no end up in industries still dominated by men, they face a difficult choice: adapt to a work culture that winks at cheating or fight to change the culture before it changes them.