Carol Gilligan and the Incredible Shrinking Girl

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015

Carol Gilligan and the Incredible Shrinking Girl

Confident at 11, Confused at 16” read the title of a 1990 New York Times Magazine story reporting an alarming discovery about the psychological development of girls.1 Research by Professor Carol Gilligan, Harvard University’s first professor of gender studies, had demonstrated that as girls move into adolescence they are “silenced” and their native confident spirit is forced “underground.” The piece, by novelist Francine Prose, was laudatory and urgent; it mentioned in passing that Gilligan’s research faced intense opposition from academics but provided few details.

Prose’s nearly 4,000-word panegyric gave Times readers the heady feeling of being at the center of world-changing science. Gilligan and two colleagues had just published Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School.2 Prose described the book as “a major phase” in Gilligan’s Harvard research project on adolescent girls, extending the findings of her famous 1982 work, In a Different Voice. In the preface to Making Connections, Gilligan states her latest discovery dramatically: “As the river of a girl’s life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing.”3 The stakes are enormous, she says: helping girls negotiate this adolescent maelstrom may be the “key to girls’ development and to Western Civilization.”4

Had Prose interviewed experts in adolescent development, she might have alerted her readers to anomalies in Gilligan’s methods, and contrasted Gilligan’s findings with those of a substantial academic literature that describes adolescent girls far more optimistically. But no such skeptics were consulted.

The Times Magazine article generated a panicky concern for girls that would profoundly affect education policy throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Just when—as we now know—an educational gender gap was opening up with girls well in the lead, boys became objects of neglect while the education establishment focused on rescuing the afflicted girls. A brief review of Gilligan’s research methods, and of the findings of empirically minded developmental psychologists, will show why the Times should have engaged a science writer rather than a novelist to present Gilligan’s discovery to the world.

Unfairness and Not Listening

For Making Connections, sixteen authors, including Gilligan, interviewed Emma Willard students about how they felt growing into adolescence. The school, located in Troy, New York, takes both boarding and day students and is one of the oldest private girls’ academies in the country. These interviews at Emma Willard seemed to confirm their darkest suspicions about the precarious mental state of teenage girls.

Preteen girls, Gilligan writes, are confident, forthright, and clear-sighted. But, as they enter adolescence, they become frightened by their own insights into our male-dominated culture. It is a culture, says Gilligan, that tells them, “Keep quiet and notice the absence of women, and say nothing.” Girls no longer see themselves as what the culture is about. This realization is “seditious” and places girls in psychological danger. So girls learn to hide what they know—not only from others, but even from themselves. In her Times article, Prose cited what became oft-quoted words of Gilligan’s: “By 15 or 16 . . . [girls] start saying, ’I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.’ They start not knowing what they had known.”5

To protect themselves, girls begin to hide the vast well of knowledge they possess about human relations and injustice. Many bury it so deep inside themselves that they lose touch with it. Says Gilligan: “Interviewing girls in adolescence . . . I felt at times that I was entering an underground world that I was led in by girls to caverns of knowledge, which then suddenly were covered over, as if nothing was known and nothing was happening.”6 According to Gilligan, girls possess an uncanny understanding of the “human social world . . . compelling in its explanatory power and intricate in its psychological logic.”7 The sophisticated understanding of human relations that girls have but do not show, she says, rivals that of trained professional adults: “Much of what psychologists know about relationships is also known by adolescent girls.”

What sort of experiments did Gilligan and her colleagues carry out at the Emma Willard School that led to the discovery of girls’ acute insights into human relations? A chapter called “Unfairness and Not Listening: Converging Themes in Emma Willard Girls’ Development” gives a fair idea of Gilligan’s methods and style of research. Gilligan and her coinvestigator, Elizabeth Bernstein, asked thirty-four girls to describe an occasion of someone “not being fair” and an occasion when someone “didn’t listen.”8 Here are some sample replies of the Emma Willard girls:

Barbara, twelfth grader

Unfairness: “We had three final assignments . . . knowing the students were feeling very burdened, it was unfair of her [the teacher] to contribute to that.”

Not listening: “She did not seem terribly moved by how the class was feeling.”

Susan, eleventh grader

Unfairness: “A friend of mine was kicked out because . . . she had a friend of hers who got 600s on the SATs go in and take them [for her] . . . I understand punishing her, but I don’t think her life should be ruined. It makes me angry. I think they should have had her come back here. . . . I don’t think they cared.”

Not listening: “We were going to spend a weekend at a boys’ school and [the dean] said I understand you are going to do some drinking. I was just so mad. . . . I said, ’I will follow the rules.’ But she didn’t listen. I didn’t like her getting involved in my plans, because I didn’t think that was fair.”9

To the untrained observer, these teenage girls don’t sound exceptionally insightful. Susan seems to be immature and ethically clueless. She seems not to understand the seriousness of the SAT deception; she is indignant that the dean of her boarding school, concerned about underage girls drinking, is so “involved” in her plans. But Gilligan and her colleague Bernstein seem never to notice the moral shortcomings of their subjects. Instead they tell us that girls such as Susan and Barbara are “unsettling” conventional modes of thinking about morality. They credit their callow subjects with exceptional moral insight: “The convergence of concerns with fairness and listening in older girls, for the most part, gives rise to a moral stance of depth and power.”10 Normally, say Gilligan and Bernstein, we disassociate the concepts of fairness and listening, but “remarkably, for these girls fairness and listening appear to be intimately related concepts.”11

But how remarkable is it that the girls, asked by an interviewer to say something about (a) unfairness and (b) not listening, got the idea that they were expected to describe instances in which they had felt that they were unfairly treated and their views were ignored?

Gilligan’s sentimental, valorizing descriptions of adolescent girls are frankly absurd. Her study of “unfairness and not listening”—despite its charts, graphs, and tables—is a caricature of research. Most of the girls’ comments are entirely ordinary. Gilligan inflates their significance by reading profound meanings into them.

What About Boys?

Gilligan would have us believe that preteen girls are cognitively special. But what about boys? Do boys of eleven also make “outrageously wonderful statements”? Are they also spontaneous and incorruptibly frank? Or does Gilligan believe that, unlike girls, eleven-year-old boys are “for sale”? As boys move into adolescence, do they, too, suffer a loss of openness and frankness? Are they also diminished in their teen years? Could it be that girls’ specialness consists of their sophistication when compared with relatively clueless boys?

To establish her thesis that our culture silences adolescent girls, Gilligan would need to identify some clear notions of candor and measures of outspokenness, then embark on a carefully designed study of thousands of American boys and girls. Anecdotal methods—especially anecdotal methods applied to one sex—cannot begin to make the case. Moreover, Gilligan does not offer even anecdotal evidence that preteen boys and girls differ in natural wisdom and forthrightness.

It might actually be, then, that preteen boys are just as astute and alive as preteen girls. That would have several possible implications for Gilligan’s theory. Perhaps, like girls, adolescent boys are silenced and “forced underground.” But if that is the case, sex is not a decisive factor; instead we are dealing with the familiar problem of adolescent insecurity that afflicts both girls and boys, and Gilligan’s sensational claim that girls are at special risk would turn out to be false.

Alternatively, it may be that only girls “sell out” and become inarticulate and conformist; that adolescent boys remain independent, honest, and open interpreters of social reality. This, too, doesn’t seem right; certainly Gilligan would reject any alternative that valorized boys as more candid and articulate than girls.

Unlike Gilligan, the rest of us enjoy the option of avoiding gender politics and returning to the conventional view that normal girls and boys do not differ significantly in respect to astuteness and candor. Both pass from childhood to adolescence by becoming less narcissistic, more reflective, and less sure about their grasp of the complex world that is opening up to them. Leaving junior high school, both boys and girls emerge from a “know-it-all” stage into a more mature stage in which they begin to appreciate that there is a vast amount they do not know. If so, it is not true that “girls start not knowing what they had known,” but rather that most older children of both sexes quite sensibly go through a period of realizing that what they thought they knew may not be true at all—and that there is a lot out there to be learned.

When the Times article appeared, Gilligan had not yet studied boys. The article gave the impression that boys, beneficiaries of the male-voiced culture, were doing comparatively well. A few years later, Gilligan would announce that boys, too, were victims of the dominant culture, forced in early childhood to adopt masculine stereotypes that cause a host of ills, including their own loss of “voice.” But in the early nineties, her focus was exclusively girls.

Prose did not deem Gilligan’s neglect of boys a failing. On the contrary, she treated it as a virtue: “By concentrating on girls, the project’s new studies avoid the muddle of gender comparisons and the issue of whether boys experience a similar ’moment of resistance.’ Gilligan and her colleagues are simply telling us how girls sound at two proximate but radically dissimilar stages of growing up.”12 What Prose considered a muddle to be avoided is, however, clearly a crucial part of any research on adolescent development. For how, in the absence of comparative studies, can we possibly know whether what Gilligan described is specific to girls?

Gilligan might at least have warned Prose of the limitations of her findings. Quite apart from Gilligan’s scholarly obligation to give us a comprehensive picture of adolescence as a backdrop for her assertions about girls, she should have taken care that the public was not misled. Instead, her inattention to boys invited the conclusion that girls were in distress because the system was biased in favor of boys. And indeed, many of her readers (including some who are in charge of important women’s organizations) did take Gilligan’s research as surefire proof that our society favors boys and shortchanges girls.

The Girl Crisis

Popular writers, electrified by Gilligan’s discovery, began to see evidence of the crisis everywhere. Anna Quindlen, who was then a New York Times columnist, recounted in a 1990 column how Gilligan’s research had cast an ominous shadow on the celebration of her daughter’s second birthday: “My daughter is ready to leap into the world, as though life were chicken soup and she a delighted noodle. The work of Professor Carol Gilligan of Harvard suggests that some time after the age of 11 this will change, that even this lively little girl will pull back [and] shrink.”13

The country’s adolescent girls were both pitied and exalted. The novelist Carolyn See wrote in the Washington Post Book World in 1994, “The most heroic, fearless, graceful, tortured human beings in this land must be girls from the ages of 12 to 15.”14 In the same vein, American University professors Myra and David Sadker in Failing at Fairness predicted the fate of a lively six-year-old on top of a playground slide: “There she stood on her sturdy legs, with her head thrown back and her arms flung wide. As ruler of the playground, she was at the very zenith of her world.” But all would soon change: “If the camera had photographed the girl . . . at twelve instead of six . . . she would have been looking at the ground instead of the sky; her sense of self-worth would have been an accelerating downward spiral.”15 In Mary Pipher’s 1994 Reviving Ophelia, by far the most successful of the girl-crisis books, girls undergo a fiery demise. “Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn.”16

The description of America’s teenage girls as silenced, tortured, and otherwise personally diminished was (and is) indeed dismaying. But no real evidence has ever been offered to support it. Scholars who abide by the conventional protocols of social science research describe adolescent girls in far more positive terms. Anne Petersen, a former professor of adolescent development and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota (now at the University of Michigan), reports the consensus of researchers working in adolescent psychology: “It is now known that the majority of adolescents of both genders successfully negotiate this developmental period without any major psychological or emotional disorder, develop a positive sense of personal identity, and manage to forge adaptive peer relationships with their families.”17 Daniel Offer, a (now retired) professor of psychiatry at Northwestern, concurs. He refers to a “new generation of studies” that find 80 percent of adolescents to be normal and well adjusted.18

Gilligan offered little in the way of conventional evidence to support her alarming findings. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what sort of empirical research could establish large such claims. But, after the Times article, she quickly attracted powerful allies. None would prove more important than the Ms. Foundation and the American Association of University Women. With their help, the allegedly fragile and demoralized state of American adolescent girls would achieve the status of a national emergency.

Seven Women and a Fax Machine

Marie Wilson, then president of the Ms. Foundation, has described the impact of Gilligan’s findings on her staff: “The research on girls struck a chord (perhaps a nerve) with the women at the Ms. organization. It resonated deeply and profoundly.”19 Gilligan would soon come down from her ivory tower to discuss her research with Wilson. Wilson recalls their first meeting: “The two of us met soon after the [New York Times Magazine] article appeared. The more we talked, the more we became determined to get this information out to the world.”

So Gilligan, who had herself described her findings as “new and fragile,” nevertheless joined Ms. staffers in their mission to alert the world to the plight of girls. Together they searched for solutions. Marie Wilson writes, “The more we read and learned, and the more we collaborated with the Harvard researchers, the more often we said: Yes, that was me—confident at 11, confused at 16. . . . What if this confidence could be tapped—and maintained? What if girls didn’t have to lose self-esteem? Our blood quickened.”20

The mood at Ms. was tense but excited. What should be done to help stem the terrible drain of girls’ self-confidence? It was in pondering this question that Wilson, Gilligan, and Nell Merlino, a public relations specialist, hit on the idea of a school holiday exclusively for girls. What became Take Our Daughters to Work Day was designed to achieve two purposes. First, an unprecedented girls-only holiday (the boys would stay in school) would raise public awareness about the precarious state of girls’ self-esteem. Second, it would address that problem by taking a dramatic step to alleviate the drain of confidence girls suffer. As Ms. explained: for one day, at least, girls would feel “visible, valued and heard.”21

Looking back to the beginnings of a school holiday now observed by millions, Wilson and Gilligan are understandably self-congratulatory: “Miracle of miracles, seven women and a fax machine at the Ms. Foundation for Women pulled off the largest public education campaign in the history of the women’s movement. In a nutshell, that’s how Take Our Daughters to Work Day was born.”22

Gilligan’s description of the grim fate of American girls’ self-esteem is central to the rationale for Daughters’ Day. Here is the sort of information the Ms. sponsors included in the information packet: “Talk to an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old girl. Chances are she’ll be BURSTING WITH ENERGY. . . . Young girls are confident, lively, ENTERPRISING, straightforward—and bent on doing great things in the world.”23 But, the guide points out, this does not last: “Harvard Project members found that by age 12 or 13 many girls start censoring vital parts of themselves—their honesty, insights, and anger—to conform to cultural norms for women. What has happened? Gilligan described girls coming up against a ’wall’—the wall of culture that values women less than men.”24

An American Tragedy

Gilligan’s ideas also had special resonance with leaders of the venerable and politically influential American Association of University Women (AAUW). Officers at the AAUW were reported to be “intrigued and alarmed” by Gilligan’s findings.25 “Wanting to know more,” they quickly commissioned a study from the polling firm Greenberg-Lake. With help from Gilligan, the pollsters asked 3,000 children (2,400 girls and 600 boys in grades four through ten) about their self-perceptions. In 1991 the AAUW announced the disturbing results in a report titled Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America: “Girls aged eight and nine are confident, assertive, and feel authoritative about themselves. Yet most emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, constrained views of their future and their place in society, and much less confidence about themselves and their abilities.”26

Anne Bryant, then executive director of the AAUW and an expert in public relations, organized a media campaign to spread the word: “What happens to girls during their school years is an unacknowledged American tragedy. . . . By the time girls finish high school, their doubts have crowded out their dreams.”27 Newspapers and magazines around the country carried reports that girls were being adversely affected by gender bias that eroded their self-esteem. Sharon Schuster, at the time the president of the AAUW, candidly explained to the New York Times why the association had undertaken the research in the first place: “We wanted to put some factual data behind our belief that girls are getting shortchanged in the classroom.”28

As the AAUW’s self-esteem study was making headlines, Science News, which has been supplying information on scientific and technical developments to newspapers since 1922, reported the skeptical reaction of leading specialists on adolescent development.29 The late Roberta Simmons, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh (described by Science News as “director of the most ambitious longitudinal study of adolescent self-esteem to date”), said that her research showed nothing like the substantial gender gap described by the AAUW. According to Simmons, “Most kids come through the years from 10 to 20 without major problems and with an increasing sense of self-esteem.”30 But the doubts of Simmons and several other prominent experts were not reported in the hundreds of news stories that the Greenberg-Lake study generated.31

Ironically, Gilligan’s portrait of adolescent girls “losing their voice” did not agree with the findings of the AAUW self-esteem research—research she herself helped design. In that survey of children aged nine to fifteen, 57 percent of students said teachers call on girls more and 59 percent said that teachers pay more attention to girls.32 One question in the AAUW survey specifically tested Gilligan’s hypothesis: “Do you think of yourself as someone who keeps quiet or someone who speaks out?”33 Among elementary school girls, 41 percent said they speak out; for high school girls the number went up to 56 percent. For boys, the reverse was true: 59 percent of elementary school boys said they speak out, but by high school they were 1 point behind girls, at 55 percent. These differences are small and well within the margin of error for this survey of 2,942 students (2,350 girls and 592 boys), but the results should have prompted Gilligan to ask herself whether her claim that girls increasingly lose confidence as they move into adolescence was tenable.

The AAUW quickly commissioned a second study, How Schools Shortchange Girls. This one, conducted by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and released in 1992, asserted a direct causal relationship between girls’ alleged second-class status in the nations’ schools and deficiencies in their self-esteem. Carol Gilligan’s girl crisis was thus transformed into a civil rights issue: girls were the victims of widespread discrimination. “The implications are clear,” the AAUW said. “The system must change.”34

Education Week reported that the AAUW spent $100,000 for the second study and $150,000 promoting it.35 With great fanfare, How Schools Shortchange Girls was released to the remarkably credulous media. A 1992 page-one article for the New York Times by Susan Chira was typical of coverage throughout the country. The headline read “Bias Against Girls Is Found Rife in Schools, with Lasting Damage.”36 The piece was later reproduced by the AAUW and sent out as part of a fund-raising package. Chira had not interviewed a single critic of the study.

A few years later, when the academic plight of boys was making itself known, I called Chira and asked about the way she had handled the AAUW study. Would she write her article the same way today? No, she said, pointing out that we have since learned much more about boys’ problems in school. Why had she not canvassed dissenting opinions? She explained that she had been traveling when the AAUW study came out, and was on a short deadline. Yes, perhaps she had relied too much on the AAUW’s report. She had tried to reach Diane Ravitch, a former US Assistant Secretary of Education and a known critic of women’s-advocacy findings, but without success.

Six years after the release of How Schools Shortchange Girls, the New York Times ran a story that raised questions about its validity. This time the reporter, Tamar Lewin, did reach Diane Ravitch, who told her, “That [1992] AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story twenty years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral. . . . There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys.”37

One of the many things about which the report was wrong was the famous “call-out” gap. According to the AAUW, “In a study conducted by the Sadkers, boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told ’raise your hand if you want to speak.’ ”38

But the Sadker data is missing—and meaningless, to boot. In 1994 Amy Saltzman, of U.S. News & World Report, asked David Sadker for a copy of the research backing up the eight-to-one call-out claim. Sadker said that he had presented the findings in an unpublished paper at a symposium sponsored by the American Educational Research Association; neither he nor the AERA had a copy.39 Sadker conceded to Saltzman that the ratio may have been inaccurate. Indeed, Saltzman cited an independent study by Gail Jones, an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which found that boys called out only twice as often as girls. Whatever the accurate number is, no one has shown that permitting a student to call out answers in the classroom confers any kind of academic advantage. What does confer advantage is a student’s attentiveness. Boys are less attentive—which could explain why some teachers might call on them more or be more tolerant of call-outs.40

Despite the errors, the campaign to persuade the public that girls were being diminished personally and academically was a spectacular success. The Sadkers described an exultant Anne Bryant, of the AAUW, telling her friends, “I remember going to bed the night our report was issued, totally exhilarated. When I woke up the next morning, the first thought in my mind was, ’Oh, my God, what do we do next?’ ”41 Political action came next, and here, too, girls’ advocates were successful.

The National Council for Research on Women reported on the next major victory in its 1993 newsletter:

Last year a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) documented serious inequities in education for girls and women. As a result of that work, an omnibus package of legislation, The Gender Equity in Education Act (HR 1793), was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. . . . The introduction of HR 1793 is a milestone for demonstrating valuable linkages between feminist research and policy in investigating gender discrimination in education.42

The Gender Equity Act enjoyed strong bipartisan support and became law in 1994. According to the act, “Excellence in education . . . cannot be achieved without educational equity for women and girls.” It provided millions of dollars for equity workshops, training materials, and girl-enhancing curriculum development. The AAUW lobbied vigorously for the legislation. But, as the New York Times would report in a 2002, “Ms. Gilligan is often cited as an impetus behind the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act.”43

The Myth Unraveling

By the late 1990s the myth of the downtrodden girl was showing some signs of unraveling, and concern over boys was growing. In November 1997, the Public Education Network (PEN), a council of organizations that support public schools, sponsored a conference entitled Gender, Race and Student Achievement. The conference’s honored celebrities were Carol Gilligan and Cornel West, who at the time was a professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard University. Gilligan talked about how girls and women “lose their voice,” how they “go underground” in adolescence, and how women teachers are “absent,” having been “silenced” within the “patriarchal structure” that governs our schools. Cornel West spoke of having had to overcome his own feelings of “male supremacy.”

Even at this most politically correct of gatherings, the serious deficits of boys kept surfacing. On the first day of the conference, during a special three-hour session, the PEN staff announced the results of a new teacher/student survey entitled The Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher 1997: Examining Gender Issues in Public Schools. The survey was funded by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company as part of its American Teacher series and conducted by Louis Harris and Associates.44

During a three-month period in 1997 various questions about gender equity were asked of 1,306 students and 1,035 teachers in grades seven through twelve. The MetLife study had no doctrinal ax to grind. What it found contradicted most of the findings of Gilligan, the AAUW, the Sadkers, and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women: “Contrary to the commonly held view that boys are at an advantage over girls in school, girls appear to have an advantage over boys in terms of their future plans, teachers’ expectations, everyday experiences at school and interactions in the classroom.”45

The MetLife study also asked students to respond to the statement “I feel that teachers do not listen to what I have to say.” Thirty-one percent of boys but only 19 percent of girls said the statement was “mostly true.”46 If Gilligan is right, we should expect more than 19 percent of girls to feel ignored, and certainly more girls than boys. Some other conclusions from the MetLife study: Girls are more likely than boys to see themselves as college-bound and more likely to want a good education.

At the PEN conference, Nancy Leffert, a child psychologist then at the Search Institute in Minneapolis, reported the results of a survey that she and colleagues had recently completed of more than 99,000 children in grades six through twelve.47 The children were asked about what the researchers call “developmental assets.” The Search Institute identified forty critical assets—“building blocks for healthy development.” Half of these are external, such as a supportive family and adult role models, and half are internal, such as motivation to achieve, a sense of purpose in life, and interpersonal confidence. Leffert explained, somewhat apologetically, that girls were ahead of boys with respect to thirty-seven out of forty assets. By almost every significant measure of well-being, girls had the better of boys: they felt closer to their families and had higher aspirations, stronger connections to school, and even superior assertiveness skills. Leffert concluded her talk by saying that in the past she had referred to girls as fragile or vulnerable, but that the survey “tells me that girls have very powerful assets.”

The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, founded in 1947 and devoted to promoting and affirming individual initiative and “the American dream,” releases annual back-to-school surveys.48 Its survey for 1998 contrasted two groups of students: the “highly successful” (approximately 18 percent of American students) and the “disillusioned” (approximately 15 percent). The successful students work hard, choose challenging classes, make schoolwork a top priority, get good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, and feel that teachers and administrators care about them and listen to them. According to the association, the successful group in the 1998 survey is 63 percent female and 37 percent male. The disillusioned students are pessimistic about their future, get low grades, and have little contact with teachers. The disillusioned group could accurately be characterized as demoralized. According to the Alger Association, “Nearly seven out of ten are male.”49

Finally, in 2000, the Department of Education published its comprehensive analysis of gender and education, Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women. According to the report, “There is evidence that the female advantage in school performance is real and persistent.”50 Not only did girls earn better grades, take more rigorous courses, have far better reading and writing abilities, and hold higher academic aspirations, they were also somewhat more willing to speak out. When thousands of students were asked if they would be willing to “make a public statement at a meeting,” more girls than boys at every grade level answered “yes” (83 percent of boys and 87 percent of girls among twelfth graders).51 Contrary to Carol Gilligan’s claims, girls appear to become more confident about speaking out as they move from early to late adolescence.

Gilligan’s theory would suffer another devastating blow from Susan Harter, a psychologist at the University of Denver. Using the common notion of voice as “having a say,” “speaking one’s mind,” and “feeling listened to” and applying relatively objective measures, Harter and her colleagues tested the claims that adolescent girls have a lower “level of voice” than boys and that girls’ level of voice drops sometime between the ages of eleven and seventeen.

In one study, “Level of Voice Among Female and Male High School Students,” Harter and her colleagues distributed a questionnaire to 307 middle-class students in a high school in Aurora, Colorado (165 females, 142 males). The students were asked whether they felt they were able to “express their opinions,” “say what is on their minds,” and “express their point of view.” Harter concludes, “Findings revealed no gender differences nor any evidence that voice declines in female adolescents.”52

In a second study, “Lack of Voice as a Manifestation of False Self-Behavior Among Adolescents,”53 Harter and her associates looked at responses of approximately nine hundred male and female students from grades six to twelve to see if they could find evidence of a decline in female expressiveness. Their conclusion: “Gilligan’s argument is that girls in our society are particularly vulnerable to loss of voice. . . . Our cross-sectional data revealed no significant mean differences associated with grade level for either gender, nor are there even any trends, in either the co-educational or all-girl schools.”54

Harter admires Gilligan and is careful to say that these studies are inconclusive and that Gilligan’s predictions about loss of voice may be true in certain domains for a certain subset of girls. She also suggests that more in-depth interviews might lend support to Gilligan’s claims that girls struggle more with conflicts over authenticity and voice. But for the time being, Harter cautions “against making generalizations about gender differences in voice.”55

Gilligan is the matron saint of the girl-crisis movement. Without her, there would have been no Daughters’ Day, no AAUW self-esteem study, and no Gender Equity in Education Act. Yet her thesis about a nation of silenced and diminished girls was a chimera. Why was her research taken so seriously? Why were the women’s groups moved to “get this information out to the world”?

For one thing, her message was music to orthodox feminist ears: not only women but girls were being silenced in our male culture. More important, Gilligan was not just another activist deploring patriarchal oppression. She was a Harvard professor who had authored a classic book on women’s psychology—In a Different Voice. She offered the women’s groups something powerful and new—the cachet of university science. Here was a high-powered scholar telling us that girls were being crushed. And she had “data” to prove it.

For a better understanding of the manufactured crisis, and for a ringside view of the phenomenon of faux social science, it is worth carefully considering Gilligan’s brilliant early career.

“Landmark Research”

In 1984 Carol Gilligan published her book on women’s distinctive moral psychology—In a Different Voice. Its success was dazzling. It sold more than seven hundred thousand copies and has been translated into sixteen languages. A reviewer at Vogue explained its appeal: “[Gilligan] flips old prejudices against women on their ears. She reframes qualities regarded as women’s weaknesses and shows them to be human strengths. It is impossible to consider [her] ideas without having your estimation of women rise.”56

Journalists routinely used words like “groundbreaking” or “landmark research” to describe In a Different Voice. Because of that book, Gilligan was Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1984, and Time put her on its short list of most influential Americans in 1996. In 1997 she received the $250,000 Heinz Award for “transform[ing] the paradigm for what it means to be human.” In 2000, Jane Fonda was moved to donate $12.5 million to Harvard for a new Center on Gender and Education—devoted to advancing the research of Carol Gilligan. For Fonda, In a Different Voice was life-changing. As she said in a speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “I know what Professor Gilligan writes about. I know it in my skin, in my gut, as well as in my voice.”57

Francine Prose noted in her 1990 New York Times Magazine story that In a Different Voice had made Gilligan “the object of almost cult-like veneration” with readers, journalists, and activists. By contrast, said Prose, it “provoked intense hostility” on the part of academics. Why the hostility? For one thing, most of Gilligan’s research on women’s loss of voice consists of anecdotes based on a small number of interviews. Her data are otherwise unavailable for review, giving rise to some reasonable doubts about their merits and persuasiveness. Transforming the paradigm for what it means to be human would certainly be an admirable feat—but scholars want to see the supporting evidence.

In a Different Voice offered the provocative thesis that men and women have distinctly different ways of reasoning about moral quandaries. Relying on data from three studies she had conducted, Gilligan found that women tend to make moral decisions based on an “ethic of care.” When reasoning about right and wrong, they focus on their responsibilities and connections to others. For women, according to Gilligan, morality tends to be contextual, personal, and motivated by concern rather than duty. Men, by contrast, are more likely to deploy an “ethic of justice,” with a focus on individual rights and abstract principles. Male moral reasoning is impersonal, separate-from-others, and focused on noninterference, rights, and duties. Gilligan argued further that women’s moral style (their “different voice”) had been denigrated by professional psychologists. She complained that the entire fields of psychology and moral philosophy had been built on studies that excluded or depreciated women’s moral orientation. According to Gilligan, women’s culture of nurture and care and their habits of peaceful accommodation could be the salvation of a world governed by hypercompetitive males and their habits of abstract moral reasoning.

The book received a mixed reaction from feminists. Some—such as the philosophers Virginia Held and Sara Ruddick, and those in various fields who would come to be known as “difference feminists”—were excited by the idea that women were different from, and quite probably better than, men. But other academic feminists attacked Gilligan for reinforcing stereotypes about women as nurturers and caretakers.

Many academic psychologists, feminist and nonfeminist alike, found Gilligan’s specific claims about distinct male and female moral orientations unpersuasive and without empirical support. Lawrence Walker, of the University of British Columbia, has reviewed 108 studies of sex differences in solving moral problems. He concluded in a 1984 review article in Child Development that “sex differences in moral reasoning in late adolescence and youth are rare.”58 In 1987 three psychologists at Oberlin College attempted to test Gilligan’s hypothesis: they administered a moral-reasoning test to 101 students (males and females) and concluded, “There were no reliable sex differences . . . in the directions predicted by Gilligan.”59 Concurring with Walker, the Oberlin researchers pointed out that “Gilligan failed to provide acceptable empirical support for her model.”

The thesis of In a Different Voice is based on three studies Gilligan conducted: the “college student study,” the “abortion decision study,” and the “rights and responsibilities study.” Here is how Gilligan described the last:

This study involved a sample of males and females matched for age, intelligence, education, occupation, and social class at nine points across the life cycle: ages 6—9, 11, 15, 19, 22, 25—27, 35, 45, and 60. From a total sample of 144 (8 males and 8 females at each age), including a more intensively interviewed subsample of 36 (2 males and 2 females at each age), data were collected on conceptions of self and morality, experiences of moral conflicts and choice, and judgments of hypothetical moral dilemmas.

This description is all we ever learn about the mechanics of the study, which seems to have no proper name; it was never published, never peer-reviewed. It was, in any case, very small in scope and in number of subjects. And the data are tantalizingly inaccessible. In September 1998, my research assistant, Elizabeth Bowen, called Gilligan’s office and asked where she could find copies of the three studies that were the basis for In a Different Voice. Gilligan’s assistant, Tatiana Bertsch, told her that they were unavailable and not in the public domain; because of the sensitivity of the data (especially the abortion study), the information had been kept confidential. Asked where the studies were now kept, Bertsch explained that the original data were being prepared to be placed in a Harvard library: “They are physically in the office. We are in the process of sending them to the archives at the Murray Center.”

In October 1998, Hugh Liebert, a sophomore at Harvard who had been my intern the previous summer, spoke to Bertsch. She told him that the data would not be available until the end of the academic year, adding, “They have been kept secret because the issues [raised in the study] are so sensitive.” She suggested that he check back occasionally. He tried again in March. This time she informed him, “They will not be available anytime soon.” Several months later he sent an email message directly to Gilligan, and received this reply from Bertsch:

None of the In a Different Voice studies have been published. We are in the process of donating the college student study to the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe, but that will not be completed for another year, probably. At this point Professor Gilligan has no immediate plans of donating the abortion or the rights and responsibilities studies. Sorry that none of what you are interested in is available.

Brendan Maher is a professor emeritus at Harvard University and a former chairman of the psychology department. I told him about the inaccessibility of Gilligan’s data and the explanation that their sensitive nature precluded public dissemination. He laughed and said, “It would be extraordinary to say [that one’s data] are too sensitive for others to see.” He pointed out that there are standard methods for handling confidential materials in research. Names are left out but raw scores are reported, “so others can see if they can replicate your study.” You also must disclose such details as how you chose your subjects, how the interviews were recorded, and the method by which you derived meaning from them (your coding system). There is a real risk of bias and prejudice in coding, so it is critical to have two or three people code the same interview to see if you have “interrater reliability.” Even with all these controls, there is no guarantee your research is significant or accurate. But, said, Maher, “without them, what do you have?”

What you have are unpublished, unexamined, uncriticized data that are nevertheless deemed to be of such historical importance to merit being donated to a prestigious Harvard research center for posterity. No doubt Gilligan will insist on continued confidentiality.60

Over the years, scholars have criticized Gilligan for her cavalier way with research data. In 1986, then Tufts University professor Zella Luria commented on the elusive character of Gilligan’s “studies”: “One is left with the knowledge that there were some studies involving women and sometimes men and that women were somehow sampled and somehow interviewed on some issues. . . . Somehow the data were sifted and somehow yielded a clear impression that women could be powerfully characterized as caring and interrelated. This is an exceedingly intriguing proposal, but it is not yet substantiated as a research conclusion.”61

In 1991, Faye Crosby, a Smith College psychologist (now at the University of California, Santa Cruz), rebuked Gilligan for creating this “illusion of data”: “Gilligan referred throughout her book to the information obtained in her studies, but did not present any tabulations. Indeed, she never quantified anything. The reader never learns anything about 136 of the 144 people from the third study, as only 8 are quoted in the book. One probably does not have to be a trained researcher to worry about this tactic.”62

These are serious complaints of a type that, in disciplines that respect scholarly standards, have been known to lead to censure or worse. Why has so little notice been taken of the scarcity of Gilligan’s evidence? I see at least two explanations. First of all, in the Harvard School of Education, where Gilligan held her professorship, the standards for acceptable research are very different from those in other Harvard departments. Second, Gilligan writes on “gender theory,” which immediately confers ideological sensitivity on her findings. The political climate makes it very awkward for anyone (especially a man) to criticize her. Apart from the small group of feminist critics who bristled at her suggestion that men and women are different, few academics have dared to suggest that the empress had no clothes.

Gilligan’s defenders will argue that to criticize her for her shortcomings as an empirical psychologist is to miss the point. The true power of In a Different Voice, they say, has little to do with proving this or that claim about male and female behavior. It is groundbreaking research because it advanced the idea that past psychological research was largely a male-centered discipline based on the experiences of only half the human race. Gilligan revolutionized modern psychology by introducing women’s voices into a social science tradition that had systematically ignored them.

There is merit to this argument. Gilligan was not the first to urge that women be studied directly, rather than by way of male models, but she was more effective than anyone at getting that message through to both scholars and the wider public. For this she deserves credit. Moreover, at a time (in the early 1980s) when women’s scholarship was blinkered by the dogma that men and women were cognitively interchangeable, Gilligan’s “difference feminism” was refreshing. But her specific and much-celebrated claim about women’s distinctive moral voice turns out to be nothing more than a seductive hypothesis, without evidential basis.

With the success of In a Different Voice and with the considerable resources available to her at Harvard, Gilligan might have gone on to answer her scholarly critics. She might have refined her thesis about male and female differences in moral reasoning and done the genuine research scholars expected of her. She might have tried to put her purported discoveries on a scientific footing. But that is not what she did. In the years following publication of In a Different Voice, Gilligan’s methods remained anecdotal and impressionistic, with increasingly heavy doses of psychoanalytic theorizing and gender ideology.63 Her research on adolescent girls in Making Connections is a case in point. The gloomy picture of adolescent girls that she presented to Ms., the AAUW, and a concerned public is every bit as distorted as any ever presented by social scientists using (in Gilligan’s words) “androcentric and patriarchal norms.”64

Gilligan is unruffled by scholarly criticism and shows few signs of changing her research methods. She boldly insists that to give in to the demand for conventional evidence would be to give in to the standards of the “dominant culture” she is criticizing. She justifies her lack of scientific proof for her large claims quoting the late poet Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”65

Lorde’s remark is often used to fend off “masculinist” criticism of unscientific feminist methods. One might well ask, especially if one’s research is part of a larger antipatriarchal project aimed at “dismantling the master’s house,” what better way to accomplish that end than by using the master’s own tools? More to the point, Gilligan’s justification for deserting sound scientific method in establishing her claims is deeply anti-intellectual. She seems to be saying, I don’t have to play by the rules; the men wrote them. That rejection of conventional scientific standards simply will not do: if Gilligan feels justified in abandoning the methods of social science, she has to critique them. She should tell us what’s wrong with them and show us a better set of tools.


The New York Times Magazine profile that played so large a role in popularizing Gilligan’s views described her as having a “Darwinian sense of mission to excavate the hidden chambers of a common buried past.”66 Gilligan herself is not averse to the comparison with Darwin. When Education Week asked me what I thought of Gilligan’s work and claims, I said, “I’m not sure what she does has much status as social science.” Education Week reported Gilligan’s response to my remarks: “[I]f quantitative studies are the only kind that qualify as ’research,’ then Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, would not be considered a researcher.”67

Gilligan actually sees herself as pursuing a Darwinian method of inquiry. She informs us that when she read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, she wondered if she “could find some place like the Galapagos Islands” to do her research in developmental psychology.68 And she did: “I went to my own version of the Galapagos Islands with a group of colleagues. . . . We travelled to girls in search of the origins of women’s development.”

Even a casual look at Gilligan’s contributions suggests that she should not be comparing herself to Darwin. Darwin openly presented masses of data and invited criticism. His main thesis has been confirmed by countless observations of the fossil record. By contrast, no one has been able to replicate even the three secret studies that were the basis for Gilligan’s central claims in her most influential work, In a Different Voice. In 2012, the Boston Globe reviewed the history of Gilligan’s “feminist classic.” Its verdict: “Today, In a Different Voice has been the subject of so many rebuttals that it is no longer taken seriously as an academic work.”69

Gilligan’s writings on silenced girls, the limits of “androcentric and patriarchal norms,” and the hazards of Western culture are not science or scholarship. They are, at best, eccentric social criticism. Yet by borrowing the prestige of academic science, her theories persuaded parents, educators, political officials, and women’s activists that girls are being diminished and led them to policies that have indeed diminished boys.

But that is only half the problem. In 1995, Gilligan and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Education inaugurated the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology, Boys’ Development and the Culture of Manhood. Within a year, she announced the discovery of a crisis among boys even worse than the one afflicting girls. “Girls’ psychological development in patriarchy involves a process of eclipse that is even more total for boys.”70 She and her colleagues would soon focus on liberating boys from the mask of masculinity. The war against boys was about to intensify.