Do People Still Think of Men and Women as “Opposite Sexes”?

Research on gender stereotypes finds we’ve come a long way, maybe.

Posted May 21, 2020

Kane Lynch, used with permission.
Source: Kane Lynch, used with permission.

Gender stereotypes are generalized beliefs about the qualities of women/girls as a group and men/boys as a group. They often take the form of beliefs about gender differences in personality and abilities.

Research finds that the stereotypical traits associated with “female” are “communal” traits (e.g., helpful, nurturing, compassionate, unselfish), and the traits associated with “male” are “agentic” (e.g., assertive, dominant, competitive, decisive).

Gender stereotypes aren’t just benign beliefs; they’re beliefs with implications for individuals and societies. That’s why they’re of interest to psychologists. 

For example, research finds that gender stereotypes contribute to gender inequalities in power and work. When people believe the agentic qualities associated with leadership are truer of men, they're less likely to choose women for leadership positions (one explanation for glass ceilings in business and politics). Gender stereotypes are also one reason why women do most of the world’s paid and unpaid “care labor” (people believe women are naturally communal and that this makes them suited for this work). Gender stereotypes can also translate into a lack of encouragement and opportunities for people pursuing things stereotyped as the domain of the other gender (one explanation for the lower numbers of women in science, technology, engineering, and math). 

Gender stereotypes also matter when it comes to mental health. Gender stereotypes often become prescriptions for what we’re supposed to like and be good at, how we’re supposed to look, and what we’re supposed to do (that is, they become gender norms). Conforming to these norms often has a price. For example, conformity to traditional masculine norms is associated with negative mental health outcomes. People who violate gender norms may face social pressure, rejection, anxiety, and depression. Gender stereotypes also promote the perception of “female/femininity” and “male/masculinity” as clear-cut, mutually exclusive categories when “gender” is diverse, complex, and most of us don’t neatly fit into these binary categories.

Because gender stereotypes have important implications, psychologists are interested in how they change over time. Social role theory suggests that gender stereotypes are “dynamic” and change as gender roles change.* In a recent study, psychologist-researcher Alice Eagly and her colleagues examined data from national opinion polls of over 30,000 American adults from seven decades (1946 to 2018). Over this time period, there’s been a large increase in women’s paid employment (a gender role change), so they expected corresponding changes in gender stereotypes. Here’s a summary of what they found: 

  • Women are perceived as more intelligent and competent than in the past. A majority of Americans now think women and men are equally competent and intelligent. 
  • Men have retained their standing as the more “agentic sex.” Compared to the past, more people see men and women as equally agentic (close to 50 percent), but almost 50 percent attribute greater “agency” to men, a percentage that hasn’t changed over time.
  • People’s perceptions of women as the more “communal sex” have intensified. The percentage of people who say that communal traits are truer of women has risen significantly over time (to 75 percent). Meanwhile, the percentage of those ascribing communal traits to men, or equally to men and women, has dropped. 
  • There are some group differences. Women were more likely than men to say women were more intelligent and competent than men, and Black survey participants were more likely to ascribe agency and intelligence to women.

The authors conclude that rises in the perception of women’s competence stem from seeing women perform competently in the workplace. They suggest that continued perceptions of women as communal and men as more agentic are because women’s paid labor is so often in jobs requiring communal qualities while men continue to dominate roles requiring agentic qualities (labor statistics bear out this gender occupational segregation).

But there are other relevant contributors to people's gender stereotypes worth thinking about. 

Perhaps perceptions of women’s competence have also risen because so many women are multi-tasking masters that balance paid work with care labor for their families (employed women do more household and care labor than their male partners). I should also mention that research finds our gender stereotypes are influenced by how male/masculinity and female/femininity are portrayed in the media we consume (TV, movies, books, music, video games, and social media). Our religion, parents, and peers are also messengers regarding beliefs about the different natures of women and men. 

*The idea, according to social role theory, is that gender stereotypes have led to caregiving and other roles calling for “communal” qualities to be seen as appropriate for women, and to roles calling for “agentic” qualities to be seen as right for men. But the flip side is that seeing women in mostly communal roles (e.g., nurse, teacher, childcare, mother, etc.), and seeing men mostly in agentic roles (e.g., business, politics, CEO, soldier, etc.) fosters the perception that women are communal and men are agentic. Therefore, change in either gender stereotypes or gender roles leads to changes in the other. 

References

Burn, S. M., & Busso, J. (2005). Ambivalent sexism, scriptural literalism, and religiosity. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 12-418.

Carli, L.L. Alawa, L., Lee, Y., Zhao, B., and Kim, E. 2016. Stereotypes about gender and science: Women ≠ scientists. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40, 244-260.

Eagly, A.H., Nater, C., Miller, D.I., Kaufmann, M., and Sczesny, S. (2020). Gender stereotypes have changed: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of US public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018. American Psychologist, 75, 301-15.

Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (2012). Social role theory. In P. van Lange, A.Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories in Social Psychology (pp. 458–476). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Heilman, M. E., Manzi, F. and Braun, S. (2015). Presumed incompetent: Perceived lack of fit and gender bias in recruitment and selection. In the Handbook of Gendered Careers in Management: Getting In, Getting On, Getting Out, edited by A.M. Broadbridge. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Wong, Y. J., Ho, M. H. R., Wang, S. Y., & Miller, I. S. (2017). Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64, 80-93.