Money, power…adultery?

What accounts for the surprising fact that female execs cheat as much as men do?

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The standup comic Chris Rock famously said that a man is only as faithful as his options. Despite media portrayals to the contrary, a higher income doesn’t increase the likelihood of a man’s infidelity; men rich and poor cheat on their wives. Instead, the evidence suggests, that what really predicts infidelity isn’t money, but power. And if that’s not a completely new revelation, you might be surprised to learn that powerful women are just as likely to be unfaithful as powerful men.

A new study by a group of Dutch researchers collected data from a range of managers, team leaders to CEOs. The researchers asked how often these managers had been unfaithful, measured their willingness to cheat again, and probed both the managers’ opportunities for cheating and their confidence in their ability to seduce new lovers.

Among respondents, 26% had cheated on their partner at least once. Those who wielded more power in their jobs were not only more likely to be among the cheaters, but reported more extra-marital encounters the higher up the corporate ladder they’d climbed. The more powerful were also more likely to predict that they’d continue to cheat.

What explains the link be­tween workplace power and fidelity? Business travel and long hours at the office provide opportunity, but Chris Rock was only partly correct when he said that adultery is about options. The most convincing statistical explanation is actually about confidence: more powerful business people reported much higher levels of assurance that they could find a sexual partner should they want one.

What’s most interesting is that the women in this study behaved just like the men in indicating a history of cheating and a willingness to cheat that increased as greater power bolstered their confidence in their charms. If true, it calls into question our time-honoured perception that women are biologically hard-wired to be more faithful. Perhaps one reason females seem more faithful is that they’ve historically occupied fewer positions of power. But with more women than ever occupying more corporate leadership positions, the next Mark Hurd could well be a she.

Marina Adshade is a Dalhousie economics professor and author of the blog Dollars and Sex.