The Only Gender Stereotype That’s Budged In 30 Years Has To Do With Money

Mostly we’re as messed up about gender as we were in 1980

There’s one bit of good news in this otherwise depressing news item from Reason about a new psychological study of how Americans think about gender (“The Times They Are a-Changing … or Are They Not? A Comparison of Gender Stereotypes, 1983–2014”):

most Americans are still clinging to a binary, essentialist view of gender that ascribes agency and leadership traits to men and nurturing, emotional tendencies to women. The one significant, positive change found in the study was an increased belief that women are competent at assuming financial obligations and handling financial matters.

The general population now believes, more than it did a generation ago, that “women are competent at assuming financial obligations”! That’s great. Maybe they read our interview with the adept and knowledgable Heidi Moore.

Or maybe our attitudes adjusted naturally over time. As the study notes, women “women today have more representation and more visibility than they had 30 years ago.” They now make up nearly half of the labor force, “compared to 38% in the mid-1980s.” The kinds of jobs haven’t changed that drastically, though: proportionally few women are CEOs, lawmakers, titans of finance, and the like.

And what we see women do affects what we believe women can do.

Additional work by Koenig and Eagly (2014) provides further evidence for a causal link between changing occupational roles and inferred trait characteristics, supporting SRT’s assumptions that stereotypes follow from the roles that women and men are believed to occupy. Thus, from the perspective of SRT, we would predict that the greater participation of women in fields such as medicine, law, and management would have altered the stereotype about women. On the other hand, because men’s participation in more traditionally female domains such as homemaker, nurse, or elementary school teacher has not substantially changed (Croft et al., 2015), we would not expect parallel changes in the stereotypes about men.

The researchers had no trouble concluding that “these results provide evidence that stereotyping is very strong today. … Participants perceived strong differences between men and women today across all gendered components, moderate stereotyping on agentic traits, and very strong stereotyping on female gender roles.”

The “agentic” traits is where the money comes in. That’s our silver lining and we’re going to grab hold of it hard.

In 2014, four traits did not show significant gender differences: ‘active,’ ‘stands up under pressure,’ ‘makes decisions easily,’ and ‘never gives up easily,’” whereas “only ‘active’ was not gender differentiated in the past. … In 2014, the nonsignificant differences [in role behaviors] were ‘assumes financial obligations,’ ‘makes major decisions,’ and ‘handles financial matters.’ Thus, in an analysis of the individual items, women and men were perceived to be more equally engaging in financial role behaviors in 2014 than in the past.

So that’s good! Women are now perceived to be firmer, more decisive, and more resolute than they used to be, as well as better with matters related to finance. Even if women are still perceived, overall, to be appearance- and romance-obsessed primarily social beings who are perhaps two evolutionary levels up from kittens.

This despite the fact that meta-level findings demonstrate a “steady trend” in college students’ attitudes toward ideas about gender that are more “egalitarian” and “liberal/feminist.”

In short, the experts are confused:

According to SRT (Eagly, 1987), we would expect that the real changes in men’s and women’s occupation of roles in the home, workplace, and in sports would produce a lessening of gender stereotypes today as compared to the past, particularly for women (Croft et al., 2015). But we did not find evidence of substantial stereotype change, in spite of the societal changes and even though attitudes toward male and female roles have become less traditional over time (Spence & Hahn, 1997; Twenge, 1997a). … Perhaps cultural lag, as suggested by Diekman, Eagly, and Johnston (2010), is most likely to manifest itself in the more abstract, less specific, and less self-referent domain of trait attribution to others.

Perhaps our messed up and contradictory notions about gender essentialism are Instagram’s fault and Kim Kardashian’s. Perhaps they’re tied to America’s still deeply entrenched religious beliefs. Regardless, we’ve seen that movement is possible, so I choose to be optimistic.

Besides, say whatever you want about Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton or the high-femme social media stars / life-sized Bratz dolls who serve as questionable role models for our daughters, but you underestimate them at your peril. They are entrepreneurs, and they leave no doubt that they know how to do money.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.