New Research: Americans Believe Women Are as Competent as Men

I had mixed feelings as I read the report by Maya Salam of the New York Times about new research on the public’s opinion regarding women’s intelligence in comparison with men’s. I am thrilled with the results from by Alice Eagly, a well-known social psychologist at Northwestern University, that reflect this significant measure of social change for women. At the same time, I feel exasperated about how long it has taken for Americans to see women as competent. And I feel sad about the underrepresented women in the United States who are still not valued and women in all regions of the world who are still voiceless and powerless. Nonetheless, this research by Eagly is good news. Salam notes that the study “published by the American Psychological Association . . . found that a majority of Americans (finally) believe women are just as competent as men, if not more so.” (Emphasis in original.)

Eagly and her colleagues studied opinion polls from 1946 to 2018 looking at how Americans rated a number of factors, including competency (defined as intelligence, organization, and creativity) along gender lines. Here’s what they found:

  • In 1946, 35 percent of people thought men and women were equally intelligent.
  • In 1995, 43 percent thought men and women were equally intelligent.
  • In 2018, 86 percent thought men and women were equally intelligent.

Eagly reportedly told Salam that these findings represent “massive social change.” Eagly notes that one important factor contributing to this change is that until recently, few women were in visible leadership roles. Salam notes that this situation is now changing: in 2019, college-educated women edged out college-educated men in the workforce and, for the first time, six women stepped forward to run for president and were visible on the debate stage for the first two Democratic debates.

Many women are stepping into visible leadership roles. Here are just a few:

  • Christine Lagarde—Already a groundbreaking visible leader for some time now, Christine Lagarde has just broken another barrier. David Segal and Amie Tsang of the New York Times report that she has just been named the new president of the European Central Bank, becoming the first woman to be picked for this role. She will leave her post as the head of the International Monetary Fund where, appointed in 2011 as the first woman to hold that post, she successfully steered the economies of many countries reeling from the global financial crisis. Lagarde is committed to promoting women as a moral urgency. She states that her research shows that “a higher share of women on the boards of banks and financial supervision agencies is associated with greater stability. . . . If it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look a lot different today.”
  • Julie Sweet—David Gelles of the New York Times reports that Julie Sweet has become the first female chief executive of Accenture. With her appointment, twenty-seven women now lead S&P 500 companies. Her promotion means that slightly more than 5 percent of the biggest public companies in the United States are currently led by women. Sweet has been a leading voice within Accenture for diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the development of more female leaders in the corporate world. She intends to maintain her commitment to diversity and inclusion in her new role.
  • Sarah Zorn—As she completes her term as the first female regimental commander of the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, Sarah Zorn provides another example of a woman in a visible leadership role. Alyssa Schukar of the New York Times notes that “for most of its 176-year history, the Citadel . . . did not admit undergraduate women.” Only in 1995, when Shannon Faulkner won her two-year court battle to be admitted, did the state school allow women in, by a ruling from the Supreme Court. Twenty-four years later, women make up 10 percent of the Citadel’s student body, and 25 percent are students of color. Since Zorn ascended to regimental commander as a twenty-two-year-old junior, the school has seen a record number of female applicants.

These women are just a few of those breaking barriers to become visible examples of women’s competence as leaders. We still have a long way to go to reach parity, but change is moving in the right direction—slowly but surely.


Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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