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Business, Ethics, and Carol Gilligan's “Two Voices”

  • Thomas I. White


This article argues that Carol Gilligan's research in moral development psychology, work which claims that women speak about ethics in a “different voice” than men do, is applicable to business ethics. This essay claims that Gilligan's “ethic of care” provides a plausible explanation for the results of two studies that found men and women handling ethical dilemmas in business differently. This paper also speculates briefly about the management implications of Gilligan's ideas.



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1 See, for example, Wood, Julia L., “Different Voices in Relationship Crises: An Extension of Gilligan's Theory,American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 29, No. 3 (January/February 1986), pp. 273301;Dugan, Daniel O., “Masculine and Feminine Voices: Making Ethical Decisions in the Care of the Dying,Journal of Medical Humanities and Bioethics, 8 (Fall/Winter 1987), pp. 129–40;Carol, Gilligan and Susan, Pollak, “The Vulnerable and Invulnerable Physician” in Mapping the Moral Domain, edited by Carol, Gilligan, Fanie, Victoria Ward and Jill, McLean Taylor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 245–62;Dana, Jack and Rand, Jack, “Women Lawyers: Archetype and Alternatives” in Mapping the Moral Domain, pp. 263–88; and Lizbeth, Hasse, “Legalizing Gender-Specific Values” in Women and Moral Theory, edited by Eva, Feder Kittay and Meyers, Diana T. (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987), pp. 282–95.

2 Mary, Field Belenky, Blythe, McVicker Clinchy, Nancy, Rule Goldberger, Jill, Mattuck Tarule, Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

3 One of the few discussions of Gilligan's ideas is Robbin, Derry, “Moral Reasoning in Work-Related Conflicts,Research in Corporate Social Performance and Policy, Volume 9, pp. 2549. Derry's findings do not support Gilligan's thesis that the two ethical orientations are gender related. However, I have three reservations about Derry's study. First, one-third of Derry's subjects reported that they had never faced a moral conflict at work. Considering how pervasive moral dilemmas are in all phases of life, the fact that such a large percentage of Derry's subjects did not recognize any raises the possibility that there were problems with Derry's methodology or her subjects. Second, excluding this percentage of Derry's subjects left only 27 subjects, a small number from which to draw any meaningful conclusions. Third, all subjects were selected from the same manufacturing facility. This calls into question how representative Derry's sample was.

4 A critical issue related to Gilligan's ideas is obviously the matter of the cause of the differences she has noted. Part of the debate over Gilligan's ideas centers on whether these contrasting ethical outlooks are rooted in gender, socialization, deep psychological structure, or some other factor. (For an account of these outlooks that appeals to modes of self-definition, for example, see Nona, Plessner Lyons, “Two Perspectives: On Self, Relationships, and Morality,Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, 1983, pp. 125–45.) This broader aspect of the controversy, however, is beyond the scope of this paper. Thus, this essay is based on Gilligan's model of gender-relatedness and speaks of “male” and “female” outlooks. Nonetheless, this should be taken as saying only that: 1) two ethical perspectives have been identified, 2) one explanation argues for linking them to gender, 3) this account, however, includes concepts of self-definition as part of its account, and 4) it does not exclude the possibility that members of the opposite gender can, do and should use the ethical orientation that Gilligan claims is more characteristic of the other gender.

5 For a full account of Kohlberg's ideas see Lawrence, Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice: Essays on Moral Development, 1 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981) and The Psychology of Moral Development: Essays of Moral Development, 2 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984).

6 Carol, Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 66.

7 The idea that a “separate” self leads to an ethic of justice and a “connected” self to an ethic of care is confirmed by a study by Nona Lyons. She writes, “individuals who characterized themselves predominantly in connected terms more frequently used considerations of response in constructing and resolving real-life moral conflicts; and individuals who characterized themselves predominantly in separate/objective terms more frequently used considerations of rights.” Lyons, “Two Perspectives: On Self, Relationships, and Morality,” p. 141.

For a discussion of the implications of these competing definitions of the self in terms of differences in how men and women speak, see the work of Deborah, Tannen, e.g., You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (New York: William Morrow, 1990). Tannen claims that this line of discussion in sociolinguistics predates Gilligan's work and can be found in the scholarly literature as early as 1960. See You Just Don't Understand, p. 300, n. 25.

8 Akaah, Ishmael P., “Differences in Research Ethics Judgments Between Male and Female Marketing Professionals,Journal of Business Ethics, Volume 8 (1989), p. 378.

9 See Akaah, pp. 379-80. Subjects were asked to approve or disapprove of the action of the Marketing Director by means of a 5-point scale: “disapprove” (1), “disapprove somewhat” (2), “neither approve nor disapprove” (3), “approve somewhat” (4) and “approve” (5). On example 1, the male mean rating was 2.6, the female mean was 2.2, and the F-value was 9.71. On example 2, the male mean was 2.9, the female mean was 2.5, and the F-value was 7.59. On example 3, the male mean was 3.7, the female mean 3.3, and the F-value 5.22. Akaah writes, “the mean evaluations suggest female respondents as evincing higher research ethics judgments than their male counterparts” (p. 378-79).

10 Gilligan claims that “the morality of rights is predicated on equality and centered on the understanding of fairness, while the ethic of responsibility relies on the concept of equity, the recognition of differences in need” (Different Voice, p. 164.).

11 Kohlberg claims that only one in four subjects advances to the most advanced stages of moral thinking—“post-conventional” morality. As a result, we can expect to see most men in Akaah's study employing an ethic that evidences something less sophisticated than a philosophical allegiance to justice. That is, we should find a “conventional” outlook—a legalistic orientation which sees life as not unlike a game.

12 Barnett, John H. and Karson, Marvin J., “Managers, Values, and Executive Decisions: An Exploration of the Role of Gender, Career Stage, Organizational Level, Function, and the Importance of Ethics, Relationships and Results in Managerial Decision-Making,Journal of Business Ethics, Volume 8 (1989), pp. 747–71.

13 The relevant percentages on the three scenarios are roughly: 92% (female) to 82% (male), 81% (female) to 65% (male), and 54% (female) to 30% (male).

14 For example, Gilligan's theory will probably reveal some hidden dimensions of ethical issues in business traditionally championed by women, specifically, sexual harassment and comparable worth.

15 This is consistent with the fact that different philosophical traditions in ethics respond differently to various issues. Note, for example, some of the classic tensions between deontological and teleological approaches to ethics. Inasmuch as it can be argued that an ethic of justice and an ethic of care roughly parallel these two traditions, it would not be surprising to find these differences. Although it did not happen in the studies considered, it is reasonable to expect that an ethic of justice would be more sensitive than an ethic of care would be to certain moral dilemmas.

16 See, in particular, Rosener, Judy B., “Ways Women Lead,Harvard Business Review, (November-December, 1990), pp. 119–25 and Marilyn, Loden, Feminine Leadership (New York: Times Books, 1985). Rosener makes no reference to Gilligan; Loden makes only passing mention of her.

17 Rosener writes: “[M]en and women [differ when they] describe their leadership performance and how they usually influence those with whom they work. The men are more likely than the women to describe themselves in ways that characterize what some management experts call ‘transactional’ leadership. That is, they view job performance as a series of transactions with subordinates—exchanging rewards for services rendered or punishment for inadequate performance. The men are also more likely to use power that comes from their organizational position and formal authority.

The women respondents on the other hand, described themselves in ways that characterize ‘transformational’ leadership—getting subordinates to transform their own self-interest into the interest of the group through concern for a broader goal. Moreover, they ascribe their power to personal characteristics like charisma, interpersonal skills, hard work, or personal contacts rather than to organizational stature” (p. 120).

Rosener's overall assessment of the women's “interactive” leadership style hints that it is not merely different from but better than a more traditional “command-and-control” style: “Interactive leadership has proved to be effective, perhaps even advantageous, in organizations in which the women I interviewed have succeeded. As the work force increasingly demands participation and the economic environment increasingly requires rapid change, interactive leadership may emerge as the management style of choice for many organizations. For interactive leadership to take root more broadly, however, organizations must be willing to question the notion thai the traditional command-and-control leadership style that has brought success in earlier ilecades is the only way to get results. This may be hard in some organizations, especially those with long histories of male-oriented, command-and-control leadership. Changing these organizations will not be easy. The fact that women are more likely than men to be interactive leaders raises the risk that these companies will perceive interactive leadership as ‘feminine’ and automatically resist it.” (p. 125)


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