Who’s more competent — men or women? Americans have decided

Time’s up on the competence gap.

Women are now viewed as competent as men or even more competent, according to a new study from the American Psychological Association. Researchers performed a meta-analysis of 16 national public-opinion polls from 1946 to 2018, capturing responses from 30,093 U.S. adults.

“Challenging traditional claims that stereotypes of women and men are fixed or rigid, our study joins others in finding stereotypes to be flexible to changes in social roles,” lead study author Alice Eagly, a Northwestern University psychology professor, said in a statement. “As the roles of women and men have changed since the mid-20th century, so have beliefs about their attributes.”

The research, published in the journal American Psychologist, explored how Americans perceived women’s and men’s relative advantages on three dimensions: communion (for example, compassion and warmth), agency (ambition and assertiveness) and competence (creativity and intelligence).

Perceptions of competence swung in women’s favor over the seven decades measured, the authors found. For example, 65% of Gallup poll respondents in 2018 said women were more intelligent than men, compared to 34% in 1946. Only a quarter of respondents to Roper’s 1946 poll considered women and men to be equally competent, compared to 70% in 2018.

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Meanwhile, the past 73 years saw “an accentuated stereotype of women as the more communal sex, with men retaining their agency advantage,” they wrote.

U.S. women have become far more likely to obtain higher education since the 1940s, and 57% of them in 2017 participated in the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, women on average still spend more time than men on unpaid work like child care and housework.

“Our interpretation of these findings is that women’s increasing labor force participation and education underlie the increase in their perceived competence,” Eagly said, “but that occupational segregation and the division of domestic roles underlie the findings for communion and agency.”

Despite the promising improvements in women’s perceived competence, working women still have far to go. Just 33 of all Fortune 500 CEOs (6.6%) are women, and even that is a record high. Meanwhile, only a quarter of chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief information or technology officer, chief marketing officer and chief human resources officer positions are occupied by women, according to a 2019 Korn Ferry analysis.

Many women also don’t have a clear sense of how to advance their careers, have too few role models and don’t always work at companies that make women’s advancement a priority, a recent report from the Working Mother Research Institute found.

On the bright side, almost 22% of new CEOs in the first half of this year were women, according to a new analysis by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas — 10 percentage points up from the same period in 2010.

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