Business Horizons, July-August, 1995 by Leslie M. Dawson
Women and men, morality and ethics - sexual differences in moral reasoning
Leslie M. Dawson
One of today's most important trends is the increased participation of women in the work force, particularly of women holding management positions in business. This trend has generated research interest in numerous issues concerning the impact of women on business practices. One such issue is whether there is a gender difference in ethical decision making. Do men and women differ in their moral reasoning and judgments? If so, what are the implications for ethical conduct in the work environment?
Carol Gilligan, a Harvard psychologist, has become widely recognized for her research suggesting that men and women differ in how they solve moral dilemmas. Men, she contends, are likely to consider moral issues in terms of justice rules, and individual rights. Women, on the other hand, tend to consider such issues in terms of relationships, caring, and compassion. In her best-selling book In a Different Voice (1982), Gilligan explains that:
When one begins with the study of women and derives developmental constructs from their lives, the outline of a moral conception different from that of [men] begins to emerge and informs a different description of development. In this conception, the moral problem arises from conflicting responsibilities rather than from competing rights and requires for its resolution a mode of thinking that is contextual and narrative rather than formal and abstract. This conception of morality as concerned with the activity of care centers moral development around the understanding of responsibility and relationships, just as the conception of morality as fairness ties moral development to the understanding of rights and rules.
Gilligan's research is an extension of gender socialization theory. Tracing back to the work of Freud, this theory holds that gender identity, the core of personality, becomes established as early as age three through the mother-child relationship and is thereafter irreversible and unchanging. Sex differences of infancy are reinforced through the pattern of childhood games, "the crucible of social development." Whereas traditional boys' games teach respect for rules and fairness, traditional girls' games teach respect for inclusion and avoiding hurt. Gender socialization theory predicts that as adults the sexes will bring different ethical values to their work roles, differentially shaping their work-related decisions.
Attempts to validate this prediction through empirical research in the context of business ethics have produced conflicting results. Ford and Richardson (1994) reviewed the literature of business ethics studies and concluded that sex was reported on more often than any other single variable. Seven studies revealed that "females are likely to act more ethically then males, at least in some situations"; seven others found that "sex had no impact on ethical beliefs." One possible explanation that could account for this inconsistency is offered in Betz, O'Connell, and Shepard (1989):
According to the "structural" approach, differences between men and women, due to early socialization and other role requirements (e.g., wife, mother), will be overridden by the rewards and costs associated with occupational roles .... The structural approach predicts that women will become more like men under similar occupational conditions.
Another possible explanation is that most gender-based ethical research has focused on the issue of which sex has higher ethics. Often the question posed has been, "Are women more ethical than men?" Earlier research by this author (Dawson 1992) indicated that although female business students appear to have higher ethical standards than males in situations involving relationships with others, they do not in situations…