In the last 70 years, some gender stereotypes about women have shifted dramatically, while others remain firmly rooted, according to new research published in the American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.
The meta-analysis of 16 public opinion polls totaling more than 30,000 U.S. adults from 1946 to 2018 looked at three traits: competence (intelligence, creativity), communion (compassion, sensitivity) and agency (ambition, aggression).
It found the most significant change in attitudes around women’s competence. In a 1946 poll, only 35 percent of those surveyed thought men and women were equally intelligent. In one 2018 poll, 86 percent believed they were equally intelligent and of those who believed intelligence was not equal, 9 percent believed women were more intelligent and only 5 percent believed men were more intelligent.
Other attitudes appear to have been further fortified. Stereotypes viewing women as more compassionate and sensitive than men grew stronger.
“Stereotypes change when people get new observations,” said Northwestern University’s Alice Eagly, lead author of the study. “They form because of what people experience in daily life, what people see.”
The study credits women’s increased participation in the workforce as a reason they’re viewed as more competent. But the kinds of work women do may be contributing to stereotypes around communion.
“When women entered the workforce starting in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they tended to enter certain roles and occupations that do reward social skills and also provide social contributions: teaching, nursing, customer service,” Eagly said. “Women are clustered into jobs that require social skills, and people use this as evidence of those tendencies.”
The study also found that women are seen as having less agency than men, which Eagly says has implications for the kinds of jobs women are hired for.
“Leadership roles tend to require agency,” she said. “They require people to take charge ... in some sense be dominant. So this perception tends to work against women in terms of leadership roles and other roles that require highly competitive behavior.”
Eagly calls the agency finding “sobering.”
“The great majority of those in Congress and CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are men,” she said. “The finding on agency needs to be taken seriously. It’s holding women back.”
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