Northwestern University researchers examined perceptions of women over the past 70 years to determine how gender stereotypes in the US have evolved over time.
The team analyzed 16 public-opinion polls from 1946 to 2018, looking at changes in three personality traits: competence (which researchers defined as intelligence, organization, logic, and other traits related to capability), communion (compassion, emotion, generosity, and other traits related to social-skills), and agency (self-oriented traits like ambition, assertiveness, and competitiveness).
The combination of polls included more than 30,000 respondents. They were not divided by race or gender, nor did the data surface perceptions of gender non-conforming individuals.
The big change on competence
Today, the study found, women and men in the US are largely perceived as being equally competent—a significant shift from earlier attitudes that saw women as lacking in competency traits.
The study cites one 1946 poll in which only 35% respondents thought men and women were equally intelligent. Meanwhile, in a 2018 poll, 86% of respondents believed men and women were equally intelligent. Of those who thought otherwise, 9% believed women were more intelligent. Over the same period, women were increasingly perceived as having more compassion and social skills than men, leading to gains in the communion category, from 50% in the 40s, to nearly 75% today.
Increases in the number of women entering the workforce, starting in the 1960s, can account for gains in the competency and communion categories, the researchers said. Yet a key finding in the study, and perhaps its most notable one, is that perceptions of female agency seemed to have remained stagnant. As they did in the ’40s and ’50s, most Americans perceive men to have more agency than women.
This might explain why, despite gains in competency and the fact that US women are outpacing men in higher education, the gender pay gap remains persistent, the majority of elected lawmakers, and all but 33 of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are men.
A lingering obstacle for women
Women running for public office face a double-standard in the form of an elusive “likability” factor, something that Luke Darby argued earlier this year in GQ tends to play out on gendered lines: “Obama was ‘cool’ if you liked him, or aloof and professorial if not. Bernie Sanders has good favorables. Mitt Romney is heading to the Senate now despite being a crossbreed of a career executive and a Brooks Brothers mannequin. But Warren, like Clinton before her, has to have the ability to be liked.”
Alice Eagly, the social psychologist who led the Northwestern study, called the agency finding “sobering.” “Leadership roles tend to require agency,” she told USA Today. “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.”
Stereotypes about women as best suited to be homemakers and nurturers are persistent, and characteristics associated with agency—ambition, aggression, decisiveness, and other leadership qualities—are perceived differently when a woman is exhibiting them versus a man.
The study reveals that there have been some favorable shifts, trends that will conceivably continue as female representation in the workplace and in media tick up. As Eagly told USA Today: “Stereotypes change when people get new observations. They form because of what people experience in daily life, what people see.”