A well-documented phenomenon across cultures shows that if people are asked to attribute personality traits to female and male strangers, they’ll tend to be biased towards women. First charted in the 1990s, societies’ favorable skew towards females even has a name: the “women are wonderful” effect.
But new research has found that the more equal a society becomes, the less women are perceived more favorably. Not only that, but the boost to perception of men was greater than the dip in women’s perception, suggesting that the bigger effect of women’s empowerment is to make men more respected.
The research, published in March 2017 in the International Journal of Psychology, assessed data from over 4,500 people in 44 cultures, then looked specifically at the ten most and least equal countries. Women may benefit in many ways from societies becoming more equal, but being more highly perceived isn’t one of them. “[I]ncreased cultural gender egalitarianism is more strongly related to general impressions about men than women,” the researchers wrote.
Kuba Krys of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the study’s lead author, said that the results can also be looked at the other way around: “The social perception of men decreases in more gender unequal societies.”
Another reason for men’s rising popularity could be connected to the conditions under which women were once favorably scored: The “women are wonderful” effect could be part of a benign sexism in which women are expected to be warm and nurturing—qualities anyone might hope for in a stranger, but not necessarily in a CEO. As women take on new roles in society, their popularity based on outdated stereotypes could wane.
There is no country without a gender gap, a disparity between the sexes in everything from pay to human rights, according to the World Economic Forum. That means that most research on the topic thus far have focused on women. What’s most interesting about these findings is that they suggest men are among the winners.