- American women are now seen as equally competent as men, on average, but men are still considered to have an edge when it comes to "agency" or personality traits associated with leadership, according to a Northwestern University study. The study, published in American Psychologist, compiled responses to public opinion polls that garnered more than 30,000 responses from 1946 to 2018.
- Despite opinions that perceptions of men and women haven't fundamentally changed in the past seven decades, gender stereotypes have in fact shifted somewhat due to changing social roles, researchers said. When it came to competence, according to one 1946 poll analyzed by researchers, 34% of Americans thought women were more intelligent than their male counterparts. However, by 2018, 65% expressed the same view in a similar poll, researchers reported in the study.
- Along with incremental changes in perceptions over the years, the research also showed that gender stereotypes related to personality from the '40s and '50s can still persist. For example, polls showed that women's personalities are seen as better suited to communal activities requiring camaraderie, social skills and empathy even moreso than they were in the '40s.
Stereotypes can have a damaging impact if society accepts them as true. For instance, if women aren't seen as capable as men of assuming leadership roles, they're chances of advancing in their organizations are diminished — even if their merits and work ethic warrant advancement.
Alice Eagly, social psychologist and lead researcher in the Northwestern study, called the leadership finding "sobering" in a USA Today interview. She explained: "Leadership roles tend to require agency. 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."
Experts have said that employers won't achieve gender parity in leadership until 2073 unless they make drastic changes. While Uber and other major companies have made it a goal to advance more women and other marginalized groups into lead roles, women who choose to be parents have to grapple with balancing work and children. Many are often the default caregivers for ailing family members, as well. These cultural norms can set back women's careers.
However, researchers in the study concluded that as women continue to make their mark in the workplace, gender stereotypes will continue to shift. Women are as academically prepared for their careers as men, having recently surpassed their male counterparts in number of college degrees earned. As more women move into leadership roles, the researchers speculated, more will be perceived as capable of and accepted in positions requiring them to take charge.