Americans Now Believe Women Are as Competent as Men—but Not as Ambitious

A new study shows that some gender stereotypes have shifted significantly over the decades, while others remain stubbornly in place.
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Megan Rapinoe reacts during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between the U.S. and the Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 7th, 2019, in Lyon, France.

Megan Rapinoe reacts during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between the U.S. and the Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 7th, 2019, in Lyon, France.

Among Americans, it's now a widely accepted assumption that women are just as competent and intelligent as men. But men are still seen as more likely to embody the attributes we seek in leaders.

Those are the key findings of a new study that analyzed 62 years of polling data, looking at how attitudes have shifted regarding the strengths and weakness of men and women. According to the study, some stereotypes have shifted significantly over the decades, while others remain stubbornly in place.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom about convergence in gender roles ... men are still viewed as more ambitious, aggressive, and decisive than women," lead author Alice Eagly, a Northwestern University psychologist, said in announcing the findings. "That stereotype has not substantially changed since the 1940s."

In the journal American Psychologist, the researchers analyzed 15 nationally representative surveys taken between 1946 and 2015. They supplemented these with a poll they commissioned in April of 2018. Altogether, more than 30,000 American adults were sampled.

While the wording of the various polls inevitably differed somewhat, all measured attitudes in three major realms: agency (aggression, ambition, courage); communion (affection, compassion); and competence (creativity, intelligence).

The researchers report that Americans' views regarding competence and intelligence have shifted tremendously over the decades, with 50 percent or more reporting they consider men and women equal in those regards. Among those who make a distinction, women are ranked higher than men by a significant margin.

"In recent polls, among those noting a sex difference in competence, even male respondents shared the belief that women are the more competent sex," the researchers report.

In contrast, while the percentage of Americans who consider men and women equally ambitious and decisive has risen somewhat over the years, far more attribute those qualities to men than to women, even today. Given that those qualities are widely associated with leadership positions, this helps explain why today's women—for all their acknowledged skills and smarts—seldom rise to the top corporate ranks.

Perhaps the study's oddest finding is that the stereotype that women are more compassionate, warm, and expressive has greatly increased over the decades, while the percentage who attribute those qualities to men has plummeted. Clearly, the attempt in the 1970s and '80s to form a new image of a sensitive man—think Alan Alda or Robert Bly—did not take hold.

The researchers argue this may reflect the fact that so many women are in professions "emphasizing social skills and social contributions," such as teaching, nursing, or other health-care work. The stereotype may stem from the fact that "people have increasingly observed women in such jobs," they write.

These stereotypes are quite pervasive; data shows they are widely shared by people of different races and ethnicities, generations, education levels, you name it. From Nancy Pelosi to Megan Rapinoe, we have plenty of high-profile examples of powerful women in leadership positions, yet Americans' stereotypes remain in place.

Still, at a time when so many prejudices are clearly reasserting their power, it's encouraging to see even mixed progress on attitudes around gender. There's still a long way to go to achieve true gender equality, but reaching parity in perceived intelligence and competence is surely a major victory.

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