An Investigation of Gender Differences in the Ethical Attitudes of IT Professionals

Andrew Bissett and Geraldine Shipton


This current empirical study is conceived against a background of general concern with the falling number of women students enrolling on undergraduate IT courses over the last decade. There is a need to consider whether issues of gender impact on any given areas. For instance, if there is an increasing gender imbalance in the IT industry, then any relationship between gender and ethics will be increasingly obscured, and it would be false to assume that there is only one ethical perspective.

In this paper, Gilligan’s (1982) hypothesis that moral development is gendered is considered in relation to attitudinal differences of IT professionals to ethical issues specific to IT. Gilligan suggests that conventional assessment of ethical attitudes positions women as being of inferior moral development. For example, in Kohlberg’s authoritative evaluation (1973), females appear less mature because they are more reluctant to use abstract reasoning, take a less individualistic stance, and seem more contingent and diffident in their conclusions. Gilligan however proposes that men and women may take different moral stances that are complementary rather than to be judged as better or worse than each other. Gilligan locates the source of difference for girls and boys in their respective relationship to, and separation from, the mother. One outcome is that males tend to employ a moral framework of abstract rights, based on the premise that the individual is an inviolable monadic unit. This promotes a leaning towards deontic ethics (Forcht, 1994). By contrast, women’s moral outlook tends to be shaped by issues related to care of, and responsibility towards, others. This suggests a more consequentialist ethical framework.

Although Gilligan argues that men and women’s moral outlooks may differ and yet may be seen as complementing each other, Gilligan also suggests that moral maturity brings about a convergence of the two different perspectives. Both chronological age and life experience help this process of integration between the two outlooks.

Our paper describes and discusses the results of a questionnaire concerning ethical issues relevant to IT, returned by 83 IT professionals. The survey population consisted of 200 IT professionals who are studying computing at undergraduate and postgraduate level part time (in conjunction with their employment in industry). The questionnaire was designed to enable respondents to give their views in an open-ended way on three commonly occurring ethical dilemmas. The findings are analysed to determine whether any distinctive gender differences emerge.

The results of the survey are discussed in the light of Gilligan’s work, and implications for the development of an appropriate ethical outlook in the IT industry are considered.


  • Forcht, K.A. (1994) Computer Security Management, Danvers Mass.: Boyd & Fraser Publishing Co.
  • Gilligan, C. (1982) In A Different Voice, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press
  • Kohlberg, L. (1973) Continuities and Discontinuities in Childhood and Adult Moral Development Revisited, in Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education, Moral Education Research Foundation, Harvard University