Carol Gilligan

Carol Gilligan

Carol Gilligan is a contemporary psychologist who has conducted extensive research into women's approach to moral problems. 

Professional Life

Carol Gilligan was born in New York City on November 28, 1936. She studied literature at Swarthmore College as an undergrad, and she graduated from Radcliffe in 1960 with a master's in psychology. She continued to Harvard, where she received her PhD in psychology in 1964. Three years later, Gilligan took a teaching position at Harvard where she worked alongside Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg. While Gilligan worked as a research assistant under Kohlberg, known for his theory of moral development, she began focusing on the moral dilemmas and development of young girls. 

In 1997, Gilligan became the Chair of Gender Studies at Harvard, and she codirected the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology, Boy’s Development, and the Culture of Manhood. Gilligan has lectured at Princeton University and Michigan State University, she was Pitt Professor at the University of Cambridge in 1992 and 1993, and she has taught at New York University since 2002. Gilligan’s work has been recognized for women’s advancement by activists, such as Jane Fonda, who donated $2.5 million to create an endowed faculty chair in Gilligan’s name at Harvard.

Gilligan has been recognized by many institutions and organizations for her efforts in the area of women’s advancement and moral psychology. In addition to the Grawemeyer Award for Education, Gilligan has also received the Heinz Award for Human Condition and was named one of the most influential people of the year by TIME magazine in 1996. She has also published works of fiction and developed a full-length play based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.

Contribution to Psychology

Gilligan is a pioneer in the field of gender difference psychology, which argues that the sexes tend to think differently, particularly when it comes to moral problems. Gilligan argues that these differences are likely a product of social influences and gender conditioning and emphasizes that women's ways of thinking are often undervalued compared to men. Gilligan's emphasis on gender difference, however, has been criticized by some feminists, who argue that focusing on differences between men and women can serve as a justification for ongoing inequality.

Her best-known contribution to psychology is her adaptation of Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development. Kohlberg’s theory demonstrates that children progress through several stages of moral reasoning, though not everyone reaches the highest levels of moral reasoning, where justice and individual rights are guiding principles in a person’s life. Kohlberg found that more men reached this stage of moral reasoning than women and that men tended to be heavily focused on justice. Gilligan criticized this theory, arguing that it was biased in favor of men. In her own research, Gilligan found that women placed a stronger emphasis on caring in moral decision making. Kohlberg's theory emphasizing justice does not allow for the role of caring in moral decision making, and this is why women often fail to reach Kohlberg's “higher” stages of moral reasoning.

Gilligan’s work on moral development outlines how a woman’s morality is influenced by relationships and how women form their moral and ethical foundation based on how their decisions will affect others. She believes that women tend to develop morality in stages. These stages follow Kohlberg's moral stages of preconventional, conventional, and postconventional, but are based upon research with women. The stages are:

  • Preconventional morality – During this stage, there is a strong focus on survival and self-interest.
  • Conventional – During this stage, women prioritize selflessness and caring about others. 
  • Postconventional – In the final stage of moral development, women emphasize taking responsibility for the consequences of their choices and gaining control of their own lives. Caring for others is a strong component of this high stage of moral development. 

In 1982, Gilligan published In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. The book detailed her criticism of Kohlberg’s theory and her views on female morality. Gilligan’s theories propelled her to the forefront of the feminist movement, and her followers joined her in encouraging society to view women and men equally in terms of influence and justice.


  1. Ball, Laura. (2010). Carol Gilligan. Psychology’s Feminist Voices. Retrieved from:
  2. Carol Gilligan, biography. (2012). NYU Law Faculty Profiles.

Last Update: 07-08-2015

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