How Much Have Gender Stereotypes Changed Since The 80s? The Answer Will Surprise You

by Lily Myers

We’ve made significant progress since the ‘80s, right? It’s been three decades; women have gained serious ground since then in many fields. The majority of college grads are now women, and women comprise 47% of the workforce, up from 38% in 1984. So when a team of researchers set out to see just how much gender stereotypes have changed since then, they were surprised to find: they hadn’t.

Researcher Elizabeth L. Haines and her team replicated a study published in 1984, when students at a Midwestern university were asked to rate each gender’s likelihood to have certain personality traits (such as “deferring to the judgements of others”) and careers (“secretary,” “urban planner”). The study grouped the traits into two broad categories: “agency,” which included such traits as competence, instrumentality, and independence, and “communion,” which included expressivity, warmth, and concern for the welfare of others. Guess which gender fell into which category? If you guessed that women were considered more agentic, you’re wrong. But that was the 80s– in her replication, Haines expected some change in results: “As opportunity structures available to women broaden and as women occupy new positions and roles, people’s beliefs about the qualities of women might shift to match these new realities.” Now that we have created some fissures in the ol’ glass ceiling, perhaps the youth of today might perceive women as having more agency.

It would be nice to think so. But when Haines repeated the same questions to college students in 2014, the results were consistent with students’ answers from the original study. “These results attest to the durability of basic stereotypes about how men and women are perceived to differ, despite changes in the participation and acceptance of women and men in nontraditional domains,” Haines writes in the study’s abstract. Our assumptions about personality based on gender haven’t changed.

But wait, they have: The researchers actually found a significant increase in female gender stereotyping since the original study. Though we’ve undoubtedly made some positive changes as a society, according to the study’s conclusion, “those changes apparently have not been sufficient to alter strongly held and seemingly functional beliefs about the basic social category of gender.” Bummer. Check back in another thirty years?

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