WASHINGTON — Women have dealt with unfair stereotypes and assumptions for generations. However, new research indicates that women are now considered just as, if not more, competent than men.
While gender equality and women’s rights have been at the forefront of the national conversation in recent years, women have been fighting to be afforded the same opportunities given to men for decades. Now, a study conducted at Northwestern University illustrates just how far the general perception of women in the United States has progressed over the past 70 years.
“Challenging traditional claims that stereotypes of women and men are fixed or rigid, our study joins others in finding stereotypes to be flexible to changes in social roles,” explains lead author Alice Eagly in a release. “As the roles of women and men have changed since the mid-20th century, so have beliefs about their attributes.”
Researchers performed a comprehensive meta-analysis of 16 national public opinion polls comprised of over 30,000 people conducted between 1946 and 2018. These polls focused on three traits; communion (sensitivity, compassion), competence (intelligence, creativity), and agency (ambition, aggression). Each participant was asked to determine if each trait was truer of a man, women, or equally attributable to both genders.
According to researchers’ analysis, beliefs on gender competence have changed dramatically over the past 70 years. For example, a 1946 poll found that only 35% of respondents believed that both genders were equally intelligent, and most of the people who did believe there was an intelligence gap believed that men were more competent. Conversely, a 2018 poll revealed that 86% believed both genders were equally intelligent, and 9% believed women were more intelligent.
The data analysis uncovered different results for the other two traits. The general belief that women are more compassionate and sensitive than men has only strengthened over time. The study also found that men are still considered more ambitious and aggressive than women, a stereotype that has remained relatively unchanged since the 1940s.
“These current stereotypes should favor women’s employment because competence is, of course, a job requirement for virtually all positions. Also, jobs increasingly reward social skills, making women’s greater communion an additional advantage,” Eagly says. “On a less positive note, most leadership roles require more agency than communion. Therefore, the lesser agency ascribed to women than men is a disadvantage in relation to leadership positions.”
Eagly hypothesizes that this change in women’s’ perceived intelligence and competence is directly linked to more women pursuing an education and subsequent career. In 1950, only 32% of women participated in the labor force, but by 2018 that percentage had risen to 57%. Women are also earning more bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees than men, a notion that would have been unheard of forty or fifty years ago.
Overall, researchers say their findings indicate that women have made great progress, but there is still work to do. Most women remain in jobs that concentrate on social skills, while men represent a much larger percentage of leadership roles.
“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,” Eagly says.