Americans no longer regard women as less competent than men on average, according to a nationally representative study of gender stereotypes in the United States.
Less positive, however, is that women’s gains in perceived competence have not propelled them to the top of hierarchies.
The new analysis investigates how gender stereotypes in the US have evolved over seven decades (1946-2018), a span of time that brought considerable change in gender relations due in large part to women’s increased participation in the labor force and education. Women now earn more bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees than men, unlike decades ago.
The study, which appears in the journal American Psychologist, analyzes 16 nationally representative opinion polls conducted in the United States with more than 30,000 adult respondents. These polls asked respondents to compare women’s and men’s competence (e.g., intelligent, organized, creative), communion (e.g., affectionate, compassionate, emotional), and agency (e.g., ambitious, aggressive, decisive).
Most adults now report that women and men are equal in general competence. But among those who see a difference, most see women as more competent than men.
For instance, in the most recent poll, conducted in April 2018, most respondents (86 percent) says that men and women are equally intelligent. However, 9 percent says that women are more intelligent, compared to a smaller percentage (5 percent) who says that men are more intelligent.
Changing gender stereotypes
Lead author Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology and a faculty fellow with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, also says that the study’s findings about communion and agency are surprising.
“The perceptions of women as communal and men as agentic have not eroded since the 1940s, contrary to conventional wisdom about convergence in gender roles,” Eagly says. “Rather, communal stereotypes have changed but increasingly towards portraying women as more compassionate, affectionate, and sensitive than men. Men are still viewed as more ambitious, aggressive, and decisive than women, and that agency stereotype has not substantially changed since the 1940s.”
The researchers note that different groups of respondents—men, women, racial subgroups—generally agree about these stereotypes. For instance, respondents in recent US samples ascribed competence more often to women than men, regardless of the respondent’s sex, race, ethnicity, college education, marital status, employment status, or birth cohort.
Good news, bad news
Eagly’s interpretation of these findings is that women’s increasing labor force participation and education likely underlie the increase in their perceived competence, but that occupational segregation underlies the other findings.
“Specifically, women are concentrated in occupations that reward social skills or offer contribution to society,” she says. “People observe the social roles of women and men and infer the traits that make up gender stereotypes. In general, stereotypes reflect the social position of groups in society and, therefore, change only when this social position shifts. That’s why gender stereotypes have changed.”
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“The current stereotypes should favor women’s employment, because competence is, of course, a job requirement for virtually all positions,” Eagly says. “Also, jobs increasingly reward social skills, making women’s greater communion an additional advantage.”
But the findings are not all positive for women, she adds. “Most leadership roles require more agency than communion and the lesser ambition, aggressiveness, and decisiveness ascribed to women than men are a disadvantage in relation to leadership.”
The researchers’ findings about change over time are novel, Eagly says. “There are many studies on gender stereotypes, but no others have investigated change in these stereotypes over many decades using representative samples.”