New research published in the American Psychologist has found that the US public’s ideas about gender stereotypes have changed over the past 71 years.
30,000 adults across 16 public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018 were asked whether communion (e.g. affection, emotion), agency (e.g. ambition, courage), and competence (e.g. intelligence, creativity) were thought to be traits more commonly found in women, men, or equally in both.
The research found the most significant changes were in perceptions around women’s competence, with most people believing that women are just as intelligent as men. In a poll from 1946, just 35% of those surveyed thought that intelligence was equal between genders, compared to 86% in 2018. This is largely the only stereotype that has changed, with women still being viewed as more compassionate, and less ambitious than men.
The fact that more women have entered the workplace has been mentioned in the study as a primary reason they’re now being viewed as equally competent. However as leader of the study Alice Eagly points out, the types of jobs women are mostly herded into, perpetuate traditional gender stereotypes.
“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,” said Eagly. “Women are clustered into jobs that require social skills, and people use this as evidence of those tendencies.”
The belief that women are more emotional and caring (the “communion” trait) means that they are more likely to accept tasks that were classified by researchers as “low promotability”, and are often avoided by ambitious workers.
The study also notes that while women’s domestic role as mothers and wives are seen as obligatory, many people believe that women have a choice about the occupations they can enter. This is despite research showing that when it comes to careers such as those based in maths and science, women are often deterred from pursing them. This is known as occupational segregation, where jobs are dominated by a certain gender, and is a significant factor in the wage gap.
Even when women hold jobs that have traditionally been male dominated such as lawyers and managerial positions, the roles are segregated internally, with women being streamed into the more communal variants of these roles.
So despite the 51 per cent jump in beliefs about intelligence, women are still more likely to lose out to men for leadership positions. It’s believed that these roles require agency and dominance, something women just aren’t perceived to have as much of as men.
“The great majority of those in Congress and CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are men,” Eagerly said. “The finding on agency needs to be taken seriously. It’s holding women back.”