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Women no longer regarded as less competent than men but still seen as less ambitious and decisive

New analysis investigated how gender stereotypes have evolved over seven decades
image of working women
Researchers investigated how gender stereotypes in the U.S. have evolved over seven decades.

Good news for women — they are no longer regarded 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.

A new Northwestern University analysis investigated how gender stereotypes in the U.S. 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, published in the journal American Psychologist, analyzed 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%) said that men and women are equally intelligent. However, 9% said that women are more intelligent, compared to a smaller percentage (5%) who said that men are more intelligent.

Alice Eagly, lead author of the study and professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, also said 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 said. “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 U.S. 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.

Interpretation of these findings, said Eagly, also a faculty fellow with Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, 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 said. “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.”

“The current stereotypes should favor women’s employment, because competence is, of course, a job requirement for virtually all positions,” Eagly said. “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 said. 

“There are many studies on gender stereotypes, but no others have investigated change in these stereotypes over many decades using representative samples.” 

“Gender Stereotypes Have Changed: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of U.S. Public Opinion Polls From 1946 to 2018” published July 18 in the journal American Psychologist. In addition to Eagly, co-authors include Christa Nater, University of Bern; David I. Miller, American Institutes for Research; and Michéle Kaufmann and Sabine Sczesny, University of Bern.