Women Are Finally Considered to Be As Competent As Men—But They're Still Thought of As More Emotional and Sensitive

Women are as seen as at least—if not more—competent than men, according to a study looking at gender stereotypes over the past seven decades. But the notion that women are more emotional and sensitive has strengthened over time.

Between 1946 to 2018, attitudes of how competent men and women are changed dramatically. A 1946 poll cited by the authors showed only 35 percent of respondents thought men and women could be equally intelligent. And those who thought men and women had different levels of intelligence believed men were more competent. In contrast, a total of 86 percent of participants of a 2018 poll said men and women were equal—with 9 percent thinking women were more intelligent, compared with 5 percent who said men were.

Perceptions were considered in three categories: communion, or how compassionate, emotional, and sensitive men and women were perceived to be; their agency, or relating to levels of ambition and aggression; and perceived competence, or how intelligent and creative they seemed.

The data showed women are viewed as more communal than seven decades ago. A 2017 poll found 87 percent thought men and women express their feelings differently—with 58 percent of that group putting the difference down to how we are socialized, versus 42 percent who argued it was biological. Men, meanwhile, are still seen to have more agency.

Although more women are in the workforce than in the 1940s, they still carry out most chores. Men, conversely, are more likely to have continuous employment, with longer hours and higher wages. This could explain this belief, the authors said.

The team behind the work, published in the journal American Psychologist, reviewed a total of 16 existing nationally representative opinion polls involving a total of 30,093 adults conducted between 1946 to 2018. In that time, the percentage of women in the workforce jumped from 32 percent in 1950 to 57 percent in 2018. At the same time, men's labor force participation dropped from 82 percent to 69 percent. Also during this period, women had higher educational attainment than men, earning more bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

Professor Alice Eagly, lead author of the study at Northwestern University's department of psychology, told Newsweek the study "shows that stereotypes change over time as people gain new and different observations of women and men."

"The study also shows that the direction of change has not been that women assume masculine characteristics—that is, become more agentic (assertive, aggressive, ambitious, etc.), It is also important that most people think that women and men are equally competent (but those who see different tend to choose women as the more competent sex)," she said.

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Participants hold placards reading 'Respect' and 'We slay' in front of the US Embassy building at Szabadsag (Freedom) square of Budapest downtown on January 21, 2017 prior to a women protesters march in a rally against US President Donald Trump following his inauguration. A Women's March kicked off, the first of a series of global protests in defense of women's rights, as demonstrators rally against Donald Trump, who was sworn in as the 45th president of United States on January 20. ATTILA KISBENEDEK

She said the conclusion would have been more robust if they had looked at even more polls, and studied more traits.

Asked how bosses should keep the results in mind when hiring, she said: "Employers, like everyone else, are affected by stereotypes but should be open to having their stereotypes disconfirmed. Employers should be forewarned that group stereotypes do not necessarily predict individuals' traits."

Commenting broadly on the difficulties women still face in society despite decades of activism, she said: "Women face obstacles in relation to leadership roles, which are thought to require 'agency'—that is, taking charge and exerting authority. Women should be aware that they may have an extra burden in demonstrating agency without receiving 'backlash' for appearing 'too' dominant."

She continued: "Given that, on average, women spend approximately twice the hours than men spend on housework and childcare, women can be stressed by pressure to be both a good employee and a good mother and keeper of the home."

Laura Jones, a research associate at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership, King's College London who didn't work on the paper, told Newsweek: "The key takeaway is that we need to as aware of gender stereotypes as ever.

"While most people probably agree that decisions about pay and promotion should be linked to competence we know that current systems tend to reward (male-typed) agentic traits such ambition and self-promotion, which we often mistake for competence."

What she found most interesting was that women were perceived as more communal over time.

"What I think this tells us is that even as it has become less common, and perhaps even unacceptable, to say that there is difference in intellect between men and women the belief that there is a core male or female 'personality' has become even more entrenched. And while we're used to thinking about this in terms of the disadvantage that it brings to women it's also important to remember that gender stereotypes about masculinity are damaging to men and have been linked, among other things, to poor mental health," said Jones.

While women match and outperform men in educational attainment and are more represented in the workforce, "there continues to be strong gender differences in the division of domestic labor, in terms of the types of jobs that men and women do and in terms of the proportion of men in leadership positions," said Jones.

"Many people look at these continued differences, even after decades of feminist activism, and they see choice, and this is likely to increase the strength of their belief in these 'personality type' differences between men and women," she said.

"But what this overlooks is the way that ambitions and choices are shaped by the workplaces and societies that we find ourselves in. In America, for example, choices are shaped by the fact that it is the only developed country in the work without guarantees of maternity leave and about half the amount of public spending on childcare and early childhood education compared to EU countries.

"Choices are also shaped by workplace cultures, which in America increasingly tend towards long working hours, which are linked to a reinforcement of traditional gender roles, since women with a partner working long hours are more likely to work shorter hours, or leave the labor market."

She argued this shows the structures that maintain gender status quos have become subtler and more invisible, but remain nonetheless.

"It would be interesting to see whether in other countries where workplace cultures and social infrastructure mandate against the 'one and a half earner' model common in the UK and the US the findings to this study would differ," said Jones.