Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Sex Differences in Business Ethics: The Importance of Perceptions

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Sex Differences in Business Ethics: The Importance of Perceptions

Article excerpt

"There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel have run riot to such an extent as here" (Helen Thompson Woolley, 1910: 340) On "current" research exploring the psychology of sex differences.

As women's roles in organizations grow in importance, research on sex differences in management continues to proliferate. A search of on-line databases for business and social sciences research reveals that in the past five years alone, nearly 300 articles have addressed sex differences in organizational settings. While we believe that Woolley's (1910) concern about the integrity of the literature is not as valid today as in her time, we may still question why this voluminous research has yet to answer many important questions now nearly a century old.

This prolific interest in sex differences also continues in the business ethics literature. Unfortunately, despite the abundance of research, a clear picture of the ethical similarities and differences between women and men still eludes us here as well. As a result, in this article we look beyond actual similarities and differences to consider the perceptions men and women hold of their own sex's ethics and those of the other sex. We argue that these perceived differences have important implications for both researchers and managers.

We begin our article by reviewing two traditional approaches to examining sex differences in ethics research and identify the implications of these approaches for researchers and managers. Next we present an alternative third view of sex differences--one based on perceptions--and discuss the implications of this approach. We conclude by discussing the benefits of a perceptual approach for researchers and managers alike.


The role sex differences play in organizational settings has received substantial attention. Following Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1988), we group this research into two broad categories, which we will call the alpha view and the beta view. Alpha view research emphasizes the differences between men and women, while beta view research focuses on their similarities. [1] These alpha and beta views parallel the two lines of reasoning that guide much of the research on sex differences--the gender socialization approach and the structural (or occupational socialization) approach, respectively (Ameen et al., 1996; Betz et al., 1989; Mason and Mudrack, 1996).

Alpha view research suggests that women bring to organizations a unique set of managerial qualities, skills, and a unique feminine managerial style (Grant, 1988; Loden, 1985). These characteristics may be the product of different gender socialization experiences that begin early in life, which cause men and women to follow different paths in their organizational experiences. As a result, men and women display different organizational interests and behaviors, and may respond quite differently to a given organizational setting (Lueptow, 1981; Veroff, 1977).

The alpha perspective contends that the female manager will, and should, operate differently in managerial decision making, leadership, and problem solving than will her male counterparts. Further, alpha view research contends that these traits make women especially well suited as managers, albeit in a non-traditional style.

Beta view research concludes that no significant sex-based differences exist in management traits, attitudes, behaviors, reactions to organizational settings, or organizational treatment. In fact, Deaux (1984) concludes that gender in and of itself is of limited usefulness in examining social behavior in general. This view is consistent with the structural approach to sex differences that follows the work of Kanter (1977) and others (e.g., Feldberg and Glenn, 1979; Markham et al. …

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