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Science

It’s official: Majority of Americans think women are just as competent as men, if not more so

USWNT
Carli Lloyd lifts the FIFA Women’s World Cup Trophy after the U.S. team’s victory over The Netherlands. New research shows that women are increasingly seen as just as competent, if not more competent than men.
(Richard Heathcote / Getty Images)

Good news, ladies: Americans now think women are just as smart and just as competent as men.

And it gets better: Among the 25% of respondents who did perceive a gender difference in smart, most said that women were more intelligent and competent than men.

So says a scientific study published Thursday in the journal American Psychologist that examines Americans’ perceptions of women over the past 70 years.

“It’s a pretty dramatic shift,” said Alice Eagly, a social psychologist at Northwestern University in Illinois who led the work. “If you think women are still seen as less capable than men, then forget it. That is not the case.”

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Eagly and her co-authors analyzed 16 public opinion polls spanning from 1946 to 2018 to see how gender stereotypes have evolved over time. Specifically, they looked at three clusters of personality traits that they define as competence, communion and agency.

Competence traits include being organized, intelligent and capable.

The communion cluster includes traits generally associated with good social skills — warmth, compassion, expressiveness, generosity and altruistic impulses.

Agency traits are more self-oriented and include assertiveness, decisiveness and even aggression.

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The polling data, collected by different groups over seven decades, were not uniform and took a fair amount of finessing to get in usable order, Eagly said.

For example, one poll might ask a respondent who he or she thought was more likely to be compassionate:

A) Men

B) Women

C) Men and women are equally compassionate

Another poll might ask a similar question about kindness.

To assemble enough data to be statistically significant, three researchers categorized each of the questions to see which cluster of traits they best fit. Responses to a question about whether men or women were more organized were put in the “competence” category. A question about who was more likely to stay calm in an emergency went in the “agency” category.

Eventually, clear trends emerged.

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Eagly said it was not much of a surprise that the perceived competence of women steadily increased over time. As more women entered the workforce in the second half of the 20th century, more Americans had an opportunity to observe women in roles that require organization, intelligence and ability, she said.

“Back in the ’40s, the public didn’t see women working as journalists or professors, and they were not famous in the sciences,” she said. “We didn’t see them doing the wonderful brilliant things that we now see women doing.”

In addition, women now earn more bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees than men — another shift from decades ago.

The bigger surprise was the discovery that over the same period, women were increasingly likely to be seen as more compassionate and socially skilled than men.

In the 1940s, just a smidge over 50% of respondents thought women had better people skills and were more compassionate and kind than men. By 2018, that percentage had grown to about 75%.

The researchers also found that there has been little change in perceptions of agency. In the mid-20th century, most Americans believed that men were more likely to be assertive than women — and that remains the case today as well.

All this may seem counterintuitive. How is it that as women play an increasingly larger role in the workforce, they are also seen as increasingly altruistic?

Eagly chalks it up to the way women and men are segregated within fields, with women often filling roles that require skills associated more with communion than agency.

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For example, while there are far more women doctors now than in the 20th century, women are more likely to be pediatricians or internists, which require people skills, she said. In business, women are more likely to take on leadership roles in human resources and public relations, which also depend on good interpersonal communication.

“Stereotypes form automatically based on all the things we observe directly and indirectly,” she said.

So as the American public increasingly saw women taking jobs that required traits associated with communion, they increasingly saw women as having those traits.

Peter Glick, a social psychologist specializing in gender discrimination at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said the work is important because it tracks how stereotypes about men and women have changed over time.

However, he cautioned that while the “female competence advantage” may feel like a win for women, it doesn’t mean discrimination is dead.

“Discrimination is a bit like that ‘whack-a-mole’ game,” he said. “Gains in one area get offset by other routes toward inequality popping up.”

Even though women are now perceived as just as competent as men, they aren’t seen as assertive enough to be promoted into leadership roles.

“Despite all the social changes, women remain the ‘nurturers’ and men still dominate leadership positions in business, politics, etc.,” he said.

Stanford University sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway agreed. She said that while women’s gains in education and the labor force have reduced the status gender gap, it has clearly not eroded it completely. Today, she said, “men’s status advantage over women rests increasingly on their believed advantage in forceful agency.”

Could that change? Might there come a day when women are seen as just as assertive, decisive and goal oriented as men?

“That’s the big question,” Eagly said.

Social psychologists are still debating whether gender stereotypes that paint women as more nurturing and men as more assertive are innate or learned.

However, one thing seems clear: If we see more women being stubborn, arrogant, ambitious and confident, this lingering stereotype could change too.

“It’s a dilemma,” Eagly said. “I hate being with men who are very dominating and talk over you. Sometimes I think, ‘I could speak more too, but I don’t want to talk like they do.’”


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