Monday, March 10, 2014

Are women more moral than men?

Are women more moral than men?

There have long been the stereotypes of the “nurturing mother” and the “strict father”. But what does this mean in more real circumstances?

Jooa Julia Lee, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently presented some of her work, with David Tannenbaum of UCLA, on just this subject. In “Gender and Moral Decision-Making,” she looked at how women and their decisions are perceived in society.

Off the bat, there’s the idea that when a white man is “agentic,” he’s seen as assertive, authoritative, ambitious and, fundamentally, a leader. But when a woman is agentic, she’s seen as bossy, aggressive and emotional. Accordingly, when people think of competent managers, they tend to think of males and masculinity. Women, meanwhile, are expected to be “communal”: empathetic, gentle, and compassionate.

Lee wondered whether these associations are driven by the actual decisions that leaders make---particularly when there’s a moral conflict between doing what’s best for the greater good (utilitarian choices) and doing no harm (neutral, deontological choices).

After a series of simulations and psychological tests, they found that when individuals were asked to suppress their emotions, they were more likely to make utilitarian decisions; that cognitive and emotional processes are in conflict when moral decisions need to be made.

How does this affect perceptions of gender? Well, when told about a hypothetical Mayor Edward Jones making massive lay-offs, people saw him as a decisive, moral leader who could make the best decision for the city. But when the name was changed and Mayor “Elizabeth” Jones made those same lay-offs, she was seen as an immoral, bad leader.

Because of these biased perceptions, female utilitarian decision-makers are not given as many leadership positions. To overcome this, Lee suggests that women use the system while advancing what needs to be done: blend agentic and communal leadership styles by making the tough, utilitarian decisions that must be made, while also being empathic and building strong relationships.

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