The Contents and Origins of Gender Stereotypes - Stereotypes, Discrimination, and Power

The Psychology of Sex and Gender - Jennifer Katherine Bosson, Joseph Alan Vandello, Camille E. Buckner 2022

The Contents and Origins of Gender Stereotypes
Stereotypes, Discrimination, and Power

Students’ evaluations of college instructors tend to be influenced by gender stereotypes.

Source: ©

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 5.1 The contents of gender stereotypes tend to vary a lot from one culture to another.

· 5.2 In the United States, the strength of people’s gender stereotypes has not weakened over the past several decades.

· 5.3 Stereotypes about people who fall into multiple social identity categories (e.g., gay Black men) can be understood by combining or adding up the stereotypes of the individual groups that form the identity (e.g., gay people, Black people, and men).

· 5.4 Gender stereotypes largely map onto the types of social roles and occupations that women and men perform.

· 5.5 Being reminded of a negative gender stereotype can cause people to behave consistently with the stereotype.


What Are the Contents and Structure of Gender Stereotypes?

· Communion and Agency

o The Stereotype Content Model

o The Women-Are-Wonderful Effect

o Journey of Research: Think Manager—Think Male

· Subgroups and Intersectionality

· Transgender Stereotypes

· Sexual Orientation Stereotypes

Where Do Gender Stereotypes Come From?

· Evolutionary Psychology

· Social Role Theory

· Biosocial Constructionist Theory

What Are Some Consequences of Gender Stereotyping?

· Penalizing Gender Role Violators

· Confirming Negative Stereotypes

Are Gender Stereotypes Accurate?

· Debate: Are Gender Stereotypes Accurate?

· Challenges: Defining “Reality” and Accuracy

· Cognitive Stereotypes

· Personality Stereotypes

· Nonverbal and Verbal Communication Stereotypes

· Stereotypes Across Multiple Domains

So How Universal Are Gender Stereotypes, Really?


Students who read this chapter should be able to do the following:

· 5.1 Describe the contents and structure of gender stereotypes, especially in terms of the dimensions of agency and communion.

· 5.2 Evaluate the major theories of gender stereotypes.

· 5.3 Discuss the social consequences of violating prescriptive and proscriptive gender stereotypes.

· 5.4 Analyze research and perspectives on the accuracy of gender stereotypes.


Who are better college instructors, women or men? One seemingly obvious way to answer this question is to compare the teaching evaluations that female and male college instructors receive from their students. But this approach is problematic because students in face-to-face university classrooms observe much more than just their instructor’s teaching. Many other factors—the instructor’s appearance, speaking and lecturing style, nonverbal behaviors, and personality—can influence teaching evaluations. So even if you compared the course evaluations that female and male instructors of the same courses receive from their students, you could not be certain that the sex of the instructors alone caused any observed differences in teaching evaluations.

To control for the potential influence of extraneous factors, Lillian MacNell and her collaborators took this question to the online class environment (MacNell, Driscoll, & Hunt, 2015). MacNell and her team randomly assigned students in an online anthropology course to one of four discussion sections that were taught by two different instructors, one male and the other female. Instructors each taught one section under their real identity and the other section under the other instructor’s identity. Thus, of the two sections that the female instructor taught, one section believed they had the male instructor. Similarly, of the two sections that the male instructor taught, one believed they had the female instructor. You may recall this methodology from Chapter 2 (“Studying Sex and Gender”), when we discussed how researchers sometimes manipulate the perceived sex of targets. At the conclusion of the course, students in all of the discussion sections rated their instructor on teaching effectiveness (e.g., professional, prompt, and fair) and interpersonal traits (e.g., respectful, warm, and caring).

The results were clear: Regardless of actual sex, the same instructor received better teaching evaluations from students who thought the instructor was a man. But keep in mind that each instructor treated the students in both of their sections in an identical manner, using the same grading rubrics, giving the same types of feedback, and following the same timeline for returning grades. This means that students viewed the same grading behavior as more “prompt” and “fair” and the same interpersonal style as more “respectful” and “enthusiastic” if they thought that their instructor was male relative to female.

Why do you think this happened? According to MacNell et al. (2015), student evaluations of college instructors are biased by gender stereotypes, or shared beliefs about the traits, qualities, and tendencies associated with members of different sex categories (Deaux & Lewis, 1984). Given that no actual differences in teaching effectiveness or interpersonal behavior existed between the two sections that each instructor taught, any perceived differences on the part of the students likely resulted from their gender stereotypes. Perhaps the same behavior appeared more professional and effective when perceived as enacted by a man because students believe that men are higher in authority and competence than women. Or maybe the personality of the instructor perceived to be female seemed less warm because of the stereotype that women are better suited for domestic, caregiving roles than professional, leadership roles. If so, a female instructor might be viewed as lacking warmth because she violates gender stereotypes.

Gender stereotypes Shared beliefs about the traits, qualities, and tendencies associated with different sex categories.

Gender stereotypes can subtly shape people’s reactions even outside of their awareness. For instance, the students in the MacNell et al. (2015) study likely did not realize that stereotypes influenced their evaluations. Nonetheless, these sorts of biases can contribute to systematic gender inequities in academic settings that favor male over female faculty members (Monroe, Ozyurt, Wrigley, & Alexander, 2008). Given the weight that colleges and universities place on students’ evaluations when deciding whether to hire and promote faculty, the gender stereotypes that students hold can have significant and long-lasting, practical consequences.

In this chapter, we will take a broad look at gender stereotypes. We focus primarily on their contents and structure, origins, and accuracy. We will also discuss cross-cultural variations in gender stereotypes that reflect long-standing sex differences in status and power. Then, in the next chapter (Chapter 6, “Power, Sexism, and Discrimination”), we will expand on the material presented here and focus more explicitly on gender discrimination and the systems of status and power that underlie many of our gender-based beliefs. The negative consequences of gender stereotyping, particularly for people who violate gender roles, are addressed briefly in this chapter and discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 6 and in the “Health and Well-Being” unit of this book (Unit VI).


What are women like, as a group? If you took a minute to jot down a few adjectives that you associate with the category of “women,” what words would make your list? These questions get at the root of stereotyping. A stereotype is a belief about the traits associated with a given social group, such as the belief that “New Yorkers are brash” or that “grandmothers are sweet.” Stereotyping, then, is the process of assigning a trait or quality to members of a social group. Note also that stereotypes are shared beliefs. You may personally believe that women are bossy or men are lazy, but unless many others believe this to be true as well, psychologists do not consider it a stereotype.

For better or worse, we all engage in stereotyping, and we do so regularly. According to theories of social categorization, we automatically categorize people into social groups on the basis of appearance or other distinguishing features and then generalize from one category member to the group as a whole (Allport, 1954; Fiske, 1998). This can be useful because it allows us to make sense of a complex world by constructing and then using mental categories that filter, organize, and store information in meaningful ways. Think about how routinely you do this with inanimate objects: When you see a pen, even a new pen that you have never seen before, you quickly categorize it into the proper mental category labeled “pens.” Next, you rapidly generalize from all of the past pens in your life and assume, with great confidence, that this new pen contains ink with which you can make markings on paper. This latter process, called generalization, is one of the defining features of stereotyping because a stereotype is basically a generalization about the members of a given social category. Of course, it’s one thing to assume that “pens contain ink” and another thing to assume that “women are emotional.” The latter type of generalization is less likely to hold true from one woman to the next because people are more variable and less predictable than pens.

Generalization The tendency to assume that a new member of a category has the same qualities as other category members.

Still, that doesn’t stop us from stereotyping on the basis of people’s sex. So, what are the contents of our gender stereotypes? A great many gender stereotypes have been documented, and you can probably think of several of them without much effort. We have gender stereotypes about personality traits, cognitive abilities, social roles and occupations, hobbies and interests, religiosity and political orientation, sexual behavior, physical appearance, mental health, emotional tendencies, and nonverbal communication, to name a few. For example, men are stereotyped as messy, hardworking, and interested in sports (Ghavami & Peplau, 2012; Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Nauts, 2012). Women are stereotyped as smiley and expressive, concerned about their appearance, and well suited to occupations in teaching and nursing (Briton & Hall, 1995; Conley, 2013; Koenig & Eagly, 2014).

To simplify the array of ways in which we stereotype women and men, Deaux and Lewis (1984) proposed four primary components of gender stereotypes: trait dimensions (such as “helpful” or “self-confident”), role behaviors (such as “takes care of children” or “provides financial resources”), occupations (such as “elementary school teacher” or “truck driver”), and physical appearance (such as “graceful” or “strong”). See Table 5.1 for a summary of these stereotypes. Throughout this chapter, we will address each of these components of stereotypes to varying degrees. To begin, we will consider two trait dimensions that underlie a lot of gender stereotypes: communion (warmth) and agency (competence).

Communion and Agency

Researchers have long known that there are two primary dimensions underlying our assessments of the social world: communion and agency (Bakan, 1966). Women as a group are stereotyped as high (or at least as higher than men) on communion. Communion refers to a broad set of traits that reflect concern for and connectedness with others, such as warmth, kindness, compassion, agreeableness, and emotional sensitivity. What about men? Men are generally stereotyped as higher than women on the dimension of agency, which embodies traits that facilitate individual success, status, and leadership. These traits include competence, independence, assertiveness, competitiveness, and effectiveness (Hentschel, Heilman, & Peus, 2019).

Communion A dimension reflecting traits such as warmth, connectedness, and kindness.

Agency A dimension reflecting traits such as competence, assertiveness, and competitiveness.

Stereotype content model Theory proposing that stereotypes about social groups fall along communion and agency dimensions and that groups may be seen as high or low on both dimensions.

The Stereotype Content Model

Importantly, communion and agency are not opposites of each other. According to the stereotype content model, because communion and agency constitute separate dimensions of evaluation, different social groups can be (and are) stereotyped as high on both dimensions, low on both dimensions, or high on one and low on the other. To test this idea, Susan Fiske and her collaborators presented participants with dozens of different social group labels (e.g., “women,” “men,” “Native Americans,” “professionals”) and asked them to rate each group on communion and agency (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). Their results—depicted in Figure 5.1—reveal that stereotypes of social groups fall into distinct “clusters” that vary along the communion and agency dimensions. Note that stereotypes of women fall into a cluster of groups at the top right: Women are rated very high on communion and moderately high on agency. Men, who fall into the cluster at the far right, are stereotyped as average on communion and very high on agency.

Table 5.1

Gender stereotypes fall into domains of traits, role behaviors, physical characteristics, and occupations.

Source: Adapted from Haines, Deaux, and Lofaro (2016).

You may have noticed by now that communion and agency are major themes in the psychology of sex and gender. While communion contains many traits that are considered feminine, agency contains traits that are considered masculine. These dimensions, moreover, underlie many aspects of our gender stereotypes beyond just traits. The role behaviors (e.g., “providing emotional support”) and occupations (e.g., “nursing”) that are most strongly associated with women often reflect communion, while the role behaviors (e.g., “being a leader”) and occupations (e.g., “firefighter”) that are most strongly associated with men tend to reflect agency. Even some of our physical-appearance stereotypes reflect communion and agency: Women are stereotyped as “smiley” (communal), and men are stereotyped as “strong and tall” (agentic).


Figure 5.1 Stereotypes of Social Groups on Communion and Agency

Source: Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, and Xu (2002).

Much of the original work identifying gender stereotypes was done in the United States. Do people in other cultures share the same gender stereotypes? Data collected around the world indicate a great deal of cross-cultural consistency in stereotypes of women and men, suggesting that these stereotypes are widely held. For example, John Williams and Deborah Best presented university students in 27 different cultures with a list of 300 adjectives and asked the students to indicate whether, in their culture, each adjective was associated more frequently with women or with men (Williams & Best, 1990). Some interesting cultural patterns emerged. For example, stereotypes of women and men overlapped the most in Scotland, Bolivia, and Venezuela, while women and men were stereotyped as being least alike in Germany, The Netherlands, and Finland. Nations also differed in how positive their stereotypes were, with some countries (Italy, Peru, and Australia) stereotyping women more favorably, and others (Japan, South Africa, and Nigeria) stereotyping men more favorably (Best & Williams, 2001). Despite these differences, high cross-cultural agreement emerged regarding the contents of gender stereotypes: In nearly every culture, people consistently associated women with traits such as nurturance, agreeableness, and affection and men with traits such as adventurousness, independence, and dominance. A more recent update of this work replicated these findings in 10 different nations representing both Europe (e.g., Spain and The Netherlands) and East Asia (e.g., Japan and South Korea; Cuddy et al., 2009). In short, the tendency for people to see women as communal and men as agentic is widespread. However, this cross-cultural tendency does show some exceptions, which we will consider toward the end of this chapter.

Around the world, women are stereotyped as higher in communion, and men are stereotyped as higher in agency.

Source: ©; ©


Do television commercials around the world reflect and reinforce gender stereotypes? A study of 1,755 commercials from 13 Asian, American, and European countries examined this question (Matthes, Prieler, & Adam, 2016). The authors found that despite the diversity of cultures, portrayals of women and men are similar and stereotypical. Across nearly all of the cultures sampled, television ads associated female characters with beauty and personal care products, toiletries, and cleaning products, whereas they associated male characters with technical products and cars. Reflecting stereotypes of male agency, men (62%) more frequently do voiceovers in commercials compared with women (32%), and this difference emerges across cultures.

While the contents of gender stereotypes show consistency across cultures, what about the strength with which people endorse gender stereotypes? How about in the United States, a culture that saw large increases in women’s participation in the workplace, higher education, and athletics over the past several decades? Did these changes in women’s roles lead to a weakening of gender stereotypes? To answer this question, Elizabeth Haines and her colleagues presented raters with the same gender traits that Deaux and Lewis (1983) used several decades ago and asked them to rate the likelihood that either a typical man or a typical woman possessed each trait (Haines, Deaux, & Lofaro, 2016). They found evidence that participants endorsed gender stereotypes just as strongly in 2016 as they did in 1983, leading them to conclude that gender stereotypes in the United States have not weakened over time.


What do you think about the fact that the strength of people’s gender stereotypes did not change substantially since the early 1980s? Do you think this finding is likely limited to stereotypes about traits, or would it also apply to stereotypes about occupations, hobbies, interests, and appearance? If you measured a wide range of gender stereotypes, where would you expect the largest changes over time? Where would you expect the smallest changes?

The Women-Are-Wonderful Effect

So, which is more favorable: “communal” stereotypes or “agentic” stereotypes? On the one hand, agentic qualities, such as leadership and competitiveness, are important for achieving success and status. In Western, individualistic cultures, we value these traits highly and have great respect for people who embody them. We also tend to offer generous financial compensation to individuals who succeed in high-status occupations requiring agentic skills, such as doctors, engineers, software programmers, and corporate leaders. On the other hand, qualities such as kindness and generosity are very attractive for different reasons—we tend to like people who are warm and kind. When Eagly and Mladinic (1994) asked people how positively versus negatively they felt about the communal and agentic traits associated with women and men, they found strong evidence that stereotypes of women are more favorable than stereotypes about men. This phenomenon is dubbed the women-are-wonderful effect.

Women-are-wonderful effect The tendency for people to view stereotypes about women more favorably than they view stereotypes about men and, accordingly, to view (traditional, gender-conforming) women very positively.

There are a few things to keep in mind about the women-are-wonderful effect, however. First, Eagly and Mladinic (1994) argue that favorable stereotypes about women as warm, nurturing, and generous apply primarily to women who conform to traditional gender role expectations. Women who occupy high-status or leadership positions or who push to increase women’s opportunities (i.e., women’s rights activists) are neither stereotyped as warm nor evaluated especially favorably. In fact, while traditional women are stereotyped in a positive and seemingly flattering manner, as warm, morally pure, and virtuous, nontraditional women tend to be stereotyped in a hostile and insulting manner, as overly bossy, manipulative, and untrustworthy (Rudman et al., 2012).

Next, the women-are-wonderful effect differs as a function of women’s race and socioeconomic status. Compared with middle-class women, working-class women are stereotyped as lower in both communal and agentic traits (Lott & Saxon, 2002). Compared with White women, Black women are stereotyped as lower on communal traits but higher on agentic traits (Donovan, 2011). Thus, the women-are-wonderful effect may apply mostly to White, middle-class women who fill traditional domestic roles. Finally, although people seem to like women more than men because of their stereotyped warmth, they respect men more than women because of their stereotyped agency (Vescio, Schlenker, & Lenes, 2010). In other words, being stereotyped positively does not necessarily offer women a route to social status and power, a point that we will elaborate in the “Journey of Research: Think Manager—Think Male” section.

If working-class and Black women are stereotyped less favorably than middle-class and White women, could this reflect something about the people who are doing the stereotyping? After all, although demographic trends at U.S. universities have changed over time, most of the people who participated in studies of stereotyping in the past several decades have been middle-class, White college students (Arnett, 2008). Perhaps the race and class of these participants helps to explain why White, middle-class, and traditional women are stereotyped so favorably. To address this question, Terri Conley measured the stereotypes of White women that were held by people of color, including Black, Asian American, and Latinx individuals. Among the most frequently listed traits that Black, Asian American, and Latinx respondents used to describe White women were dumb, conceited, sexually easy, and beautiful (Conley, 2013). Rather than reflecting the women-are-wonderful effect, these traits seem to correspond to media images that portray White women as beautiful and sexually available “arm candy.” Thus, the belief that women are wonderful is reserved for a specific type of (White, middle-class, traditional) woman, and this belief may not be shared by people of color.

A wonderful woman? The women-are-wonderful effect is reserved primarily for White, middle-class women who fulfill domestic roles.

Source: © Marks


Given the increasing numbers of women entering politics in the United States, what do you think is the best way for female politicians to present themselves in public: as assertive/agentic, as likeable/communal, or as some combination? Do public perceptions of female politicians differ based on the politicians’ race or socioeconomic class? If so, how? What are some recent examples of backlash against female politicians who are seen as “too pushy”? How do you think female politicians can effectively respond to gender-based criticisms of their public images?


Do stereotypes of managers align more with stereotypes of men or of women? As you might guess, manager stereotypes tend to be pretty masculine. This has important consequences because if gender stereotypes predispose people to assume that men are better suited than women for leadership positions, then qualified women may be disadvantaged in hiring decisions.

This topic has inspired decades of empirical research. Victoria Schein (1973) first demonstrated the links between stereotypes of men and managers in a sample of 300 male managers at insurance companies. Schein presented the managers with a list of 92 gender-typed traits and asked them to rate how characteristic the traits were of either “women in general,” “men in general,” or “successful middle managers.” She then correlated ratings of managers with ratings of women and men to determine how much overlap there was with each group. Overall, ratings of managers and men (MM ratings) correlated much more strongly (r = .62) than did ratings of managers and women (MW ratings; r = .06). Additional research replicated this pattern of findings—dubbed the think manager—think male effect—among a sample of female managers (Schein, 1975). Thus, both male and female managers espoused stereotypes that link men more strongly than women to leadership traits.

Over the next few decades, researchers replicated this effect in dozens of studies. By the mid-1990s, however, a change emerged in the stereotypes held by female respondents. Three separate studies in the 1980s and 1990s found that women’s MM ratings and their MW ratings were similar in size (Brenner, Tomkiewicz, & Schein, 1989; Dodge, Gilroy, & Fenzel, 1995; Schein, Mueller, & Jacobson, 1989). Male managers’ ratings, in contrast, replicated the original think manager—think male effect, showing strong positive MM correlations and nonsignificant MW correlations. Thus, a shift had occurred in how female managers thought of women’s leadership traits, but this shift was not evident among male managers.

In 2011, Anne Koenig and her colleagues meta-analyzed data from 40 studies of the think manager—think male phenomenon and examined changes in the strength of the effect over time (Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell, & Ristikari, 2011). Between 1973 and 2010, the strength of the MW correlation increased, while the strength of the MM correlation remained constant. Koenig and her colleagues also examined overall sex and culture (Eastern versus Western) differences in the strength of the think manager—think male effect. The MM correlations did not differ significantly between male raters (r = .63) and female raters (r = .58). However, the MW correlation among men raters (r = .11) was smaller than the MW correlation among women raters (r = .37). Similarly, the MM correlation was equally strong among Eastern (r = .68) and Western samples (r = .60), while the MW correlation was smaller in Eastern (r = .09) than in Western (r = .27) samples. Thus, over the past 40 years, stereotypes about men’s leadership traits have remained constant, while stereotypes about women’s leadership traits have increased, especially among women and Westerners.

Why did this shift occur? Recall that MW correlations require two sets of ratings, one of managers and another of women. Thus, changes in MW correlations could reflect changes in (a) beliefs about the traits of good managers, (b) beliefs about the traits associated with women, or (c) both. Koenig et al. (2011) found that between 1979 and 2007, stereotypes of “good managers” have remained high in agentic traits, but these stereotypes have also increased in communal traits. Idealized views of leadership in the United States increasingly favor managers who are collaborative, supportive, and emotionally intelligent (Eagly, 2007), and these qualities align more with stereotypes about women than men. And yet, in practice, women still constitute only 26% of chief executive officers (CEOs) in the United States and only 4.5% of CEOs worldwide (Noland, Moran, & Kotschwar, 2016). Black and Latina women also remain disadvantaged relative to White and Asian American women in upper-level management positions (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). It will be interesting to see if—and for how long—these trends continue.

In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company as the CEO of Xerox.

Source: Getty Images / ERIC PIERMONT / Staff

Think manager—think male effect An effect in which stereotypes of men and managers overlap more strongly than stereotypes of women and managers.

Subgroups and Intersectionality

We started this chapter by asking you to consider your stereotypes about the broad category of “women.” But when we encounter individuals in our daily lives, we rarely see them merely as women or men—instead, we view them as belonging to more differentiated subgroups within larger categories. For example, you might think of individual women you know as homemakers, feminists, or athletes; similarly, men might be blue-collar workers, fathers, or outdoorsy types. To examine stereotypes about gender subgroups, Thomas Eckes (2002) asked participants to rate 17 female and 24 male subgroups on communal and agentic dimensions (see Table 5.2 for a list of some of the most common gender subgroups). Eckes’s findings show that people make clear-cut distinctions between different gender subgroups. For instance, “hippie” men are stereotyped as lower in competence but higher in warmth than “manager” men, and “career” women are stereotyped as higher in competence but lower in warmth than “housewife” women. This indicates that we do not stereotype all men or all women similarly. In fact, some researchers argue that thinking about subgroups is a good way of combatting gender stereotypes because it forces us to recognize that broad-based stereotypes are overgeneralizations (Richards & Hewstone, 2001). Of course, stereotypes about subgroups are also overgeneralizations but perhaps not as much as stereotypes about “women” and “men” in general. Moreover, merely thinking about the multiple subgroups that individuals belong to, such as “woman, young, student,” can increase our tendencies to view them as unique individuals, to see them as similar to us, and to like them (Crisp, Hewstone, & Rubin, 2001). Thus, thinking about people at the level of their subgroups may be a productive way to decrease stereotyping.

Table 5.2

Source: Vonk and Ashmore (2003).

This may remind you of the concept of intersectionality, which is the study of the ways in which different forms of identity and oppression interact to shape people’s experiences (Collins, 2015; Crenshaw, 1991). All individuals occupy multiple social categories such as sex, age, race or ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, and physical ability. Thus, people who study stereotypes from an intersectional perspective might examine how stereotypes about gay Black women or low-income, elderly Latinx individuals shape their degree of access to resources and opportunities.


Building on the work of 19th century Black feminists such as Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, and Sojourner Truth, a Boston-based Black feminist group called the Combahee River Collective promoted an intersectional perspective in a manifesto in the late 1970s. This manifesto articulated the difficulties of disentangling the various types of oppression that affected these women: “We … find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously” (Combahee River Collective, 1977/1995, p. 234). While this manifesto was not the first to reference intersectionality, it was instrumental in popularizing the concept.

When researchers examine stereotypes from an intersectional perspective, an interesting finding emerges: Stereotypes about people who occupy multiple subordinate status categories (e.g., Latina lesbians with disabilities) are more likely to contain unique elements not found in stereotypes of any of the individual groups (e.g., people with disabilities, Latinx people, and lesbians) that intersect to form the identity. A study by Nevin Ghavami and Letitia Peplau (2012) illustrates this point. These researchers asked participants to list 10 characteristics that were part of common cultural stereotypes about social groups that varied in terms of sex (women and men), race/ethnicity (Black, Asian American, Latinx, Middle Eastern, and White people), and sex and race/ethnicity combined (Black women, Middle Eastern men, and so on). Table 5.3 lists the most frequently mentioned characteristics associated with several different groups. Note that stereotypes about people in the cross-cutting categories, especially those who occupy multiple subordinate groups, contain more unique traits. For example, Middle Eastern women were seen as quiet and oppressed, but these traits were not associated with either “Middle Eastern people” or “women.” Similarly, White women were seen as ditsy and sexually liberal, but these traits were not associated with either “White people” or “women.” Thus, stereotypes about people do not merely reflect a sum of the stereotypes about their individual social categories.

Members of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of Black feminists active from 1974 until 1980, fought against oppression at the intersections of race, sex, sexual orientation, and class.

Source: Photo @Ellen Shub

Two other interesting findings emerged from this study. First, stereotypes about male cross-cutting identities (e.g., Middle Eastern men) have more traits in common with stereotypes about the overarching racial/ethnic group (e.g., Middle Easterners) than do stereotypes about female cross-cutting identities (e.g., Middle Eastern women). Next, stereotypes about White women and White men share more overlapping traits with stereotypes of “women” and “men” in general than do stereotypes of women and men of color.

Table 5.3

College students in the United States listed traits associated with several different categories of sex and race/ethnicity. This table shows the 15 most frequently listed traits for each category of sex and race/ethnicity. Unique attributes (attributes that only appear in one sex/ethnicity category) are designated with an asterisk. Note that the group “Middle Eastern Women”—the only one to combine two subordinate group statuses (woman and ethnic minority)—has the most unique attributes.

Note: Asterisk indicates unique attributes that only appear in one sex/ethnicity category.

Source: Adapted from Ghavami and Peplau (2012).

Prototype The most typical cognitive representation of a category; with social groups, the prototype is the cultural default for representing the group.

What do these findings suggest to you about gender and racial/ethnic stereotypes? According to intersectional theory, this reflects the fact that cultural stereotypes about gender and ethnicity are rooted in systems of power in which the most powerful members of social groups serve as the prototypes of those groups. A prototype is the most typical cognitive representation of a given category, or the cultural default. Therefore, stereotypes about “Black people” and “Middle Eastern people” evoke images of Black men and Middle Eastern men, while stereotypes about “women” and “men” evoke images of White women and White men. In other words, the default representative of racial/ethnic stereotypes is a man, while the default representative of gender stereotypes is a White person. This tendency can result in feelings of invisibility among people who occupy multiple subordinate categories because they are not viewed as prototypical members of either their sex or race groups (Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008). Keep these ideas in mind because we will return to them in the next chapter.


Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral, as shown in Table 5.3. What determines whether people form positive versus negative stereotypes about a group? Which groups in the table are associated with more positive stereotypes and which are associated with more negative stereotypes? Do all stereotypes have harmful consequences or does it depend on whether they are positive or negative? Why?

Transgender Stereotypes

To date, there is not a lot of systematic psychology research on stereotypes about transgender individuals. Moreover, the existing studies measure stereotypes about transwomen and transmen and do not consider stereotypes about other variations of transgender identity (e.g., genderqueer or nonbinary people). One finding is that stereotypes of transmen overlap more with stereotypes of cisgender women (with whom they share assigned sex at birth) than stereotypes of transwomen overlap with stereotypes of cisgender men (with whom they share assigned sex at birth). In other words, transmen are stereotyped with a combination of feminine and masculine traits, whereas transwomen are stereotyped as more feminine than masculine (Gazzola & Morrison, 2014; Howansky, Wilton, Young, Abrams, & Clapham, 2019). Next, some of the most common stereotypes of transgender women and men include insulting qualities such as deviant, mentally ill, and disgusting, which reflect widespread, cultural prejudice (Howansky et al., 2019). Finally, transgender stereotypes also contain the unique qualities confused and gay. Why might this be the case? Perhaps these stereotypes indicate a tendency for perceivers to conflate gender identity with sexual orientation and assume that they are the same thing. In fact, transgender people generally experience their gender identity and sexual orientation as distinct components of the self, much like cisgender people do (Mizock & Hopwood, 2016). It will be interesting to see if and how these stereotypes change as transgender awareness expands.

Sexual Orientation Stereotypes

A large body of research examines the contents of stereotypes about sexual minority individuals. One well-documented stereotype about gay men and lesbians is that their gender attributes are similar to members of the other sex. This belief has roots in late-19th-century theorizing about sexual orientation, particularly in sexual inversion theory, which posited that lesbians and gay men have an external appearance of one sex but an internal experience of the other sex. Although they are outdated and inconsistent with the evidence, the assumptions behind sexual inversion theory continue to influence stereotypes of lesbian women and gay men. For example, cultural stereotypes paint lesbians as having agentic and dominant personalities, as likely to pursue male-typed hobbies and occupations, and as masculine in appearance and clothing style (Blashill & Powlishta, 2009; Kite & Deaux, 1987). Gay men are stereotyped as having feminine personality traits, being suited for female-typed occupations, having feminine mannerisms, and suffering more often from female-typed mental health concerns such as eating, anxiety, and mood disorders (Boysen, Vogel, Madon, & Wester, 2006; Kite & Deaux, 1987; Madon, 1997). One notable exception to this pattern, however, is in stereotypes about sexual promiscuity. Gay and heterosexual men are stereotyped as similarly high in sexual promiscuity, and lesbians and heterosexual women are stereotyped as similarly low in promiscuity (Burke & LaFrance, 2016).

Just as with the gender stereotypes considered earlier, stereotypes about gay men and lesbians fall into more differentiated subgroups as well. For example, Wendy Geiger and her colleagues identified eight distinct lesbian stereotypes, including “lipstick lesbians,” “angry butch” types, and “free spirits,” that differed in both their contents and their overall favorability (Geiger, Harwood, & Hummert, 2006). Similarly, Clausell and Fiske (2005) found evidence of 10 distinct gay man stereotypes that vary in their perceived communion and agency. For instance, “flamboyant” and “feminine” gay men are stereotyped as high in communion and somewhat low in agency, while “hypermasculine” and “activist” gay men are stereotyped as low in communion and high in agency. Stereotypes about sexual orientation also intersect with racial stereotypes. For instance, gay men are perceived as less stereotypical of their own race than are heterosexual men. In fact, gay Black and Latino men are stereotyped more similarly to White men than to men of their own racial and ethnic groups (Petsko & Bodenhausen, 2019).

What about bisexual men and women? Interestingly, stereotypes about bisexual people tend to be more negative overall than stereotypes of heterosexual, gay, or lesbian people. This may be because of the stereotypes that bisexual people are highly sexual, indecisive, and confused (Burke & LaFrance, 2016; Zivony & Lobel, 2014). Further, bisexual people are stereotyped—by gay men and lesbians, as well as by heterosexual people—as having an unstable sexual orientation that is likely to change. Burke and LaFrance (2016) suggest that this stereotype might stem from a preference for simple, binary thinking and a discomfort with people who appear to straddle the boundaries between social categories.

Finally, little research examines stereotypes of heterosexual women and men, most likely because of heteronormative assumptions about sexuality. In other words, because of the dominant cultural assumption of heterosexuality as “normal” sexuality, most people are assumed heterosexual unless proven otherwise. Therefore, stereotypes of heterosexual women and men largely mimic the gender stereotypes that we have discussed throughout this chapter (Burke & LaFrance, 2016). But just as with the women-are-wonderful effect described earlier, the contents of stereotypes about heterosexual people differ as a function of who is doing the stereotyping. When Jes Matsick and Terri Conley (2016) asked lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender (LGBQT) adults about their stereotypes of heterosexual men and women, they found some interesting themes. While some of the stereotype contents overlapped with widespread gender stereotypes, others were distinct and unflattering. For example, heterosexual men were stereotyped as aggressive and macho but also as homophobic, intolerant, and ignorant; heterosexual women were stereotyped as emotional, hyperfeminine, appearance obsessed, and close-minded. These stereotypes reveal the intergroup dynamics and tensions that exist between heterosexual people and members of sexual and gender minorities. Stereotypes of heterosexual people held by LGBQT individuals may thus reflect negative past experiences with heterosexual people or awareness of widespread, stigmatizing attitudes that are directed toward the LGBQT community.

Heteronormative The assumption that “normal” sexuality is heterosexual.


We have considered several cases in which the contents of social group stereotypes differ depending on who holds the stereotypes. What does this imply about the function that stereotypes serve for perceivers? If social dynamics and relationships between social groups were to change, would you expect the contents of stereotypes to change as well? In what ways?


How do we come to associate people of different sexes with specific qualities, tendencies, and roles? In this section, we will consider three perspectives on this topic that differ in the degree to which they emphasize biological versus social explanations. Note that you encountered two of these theories—evolutionary psychology and biosocial constructionist theory—in Chapter 3 (“The Nature and Nurture of Sex and Gender”). While evolutionary psychology explains gender stereotypes as arising from evolved sex differences, social role theory views gender stereotypes as arising from the roles that women and men occupy. The biosocial constructionist model integrates ideas from the evolutionary and social role approaches.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology suggests that our stereotypes derive from and reflect genetically inherited differences in the traits and behaviors that women and men exhibit (Kenrick, Trost, & Sundie, 2004). That is, we associate women with warmth and domesticity because women evolved to have high levels of these tendencies via natural selection. Likewise, we associate men with agency, assertiveness, and risk-taking because such traits facilitated men’s likelihood of surviving and reproducing and became encoded in men’s genes. Presumably, women and men evolved to have different personality and behavioral tendencies because they faced different adaptive problems during humans’ ancestry.

Recall from the discussion in Chapter 3 of parental investment theory that women (and female adults in most species) invest more time and energy in offspring than men do. Given their relatively larger investment in parenting, women should have evolved high levels of traits that facilitate child-rearing success, such as empathy, sensitivity to others, agreeableness, and nurturing (Christov-Moore et al., 2014; Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001). Women should also have evolved tendencies to be picky about mates and wary of casual sexual encounters, which could lead to unwanted pregnancy. These evolved tendencies would then result in women being perceived as the more communal and sexually reserved sex. In contrast, men are stereotyped as being promiscuous and unwilling to “settle down,” qualities that may reflect their lower parental investment (Buss & Schmitt, 2019).

Because women are relatively selective in their choice of mates, ancestral men who demonstrated especially desirable qualities would have had the most success in attracting mates. (As you may recall, this is the principle of intersexual selection.) Such qualities include agentic traits such as status, social dominance, and competitiveness, as these traits reflect an ability to achieve status, acquire resources, provide for offspring, and offer protection. Recall also the principle of intrasexual selection, which states that male members of most species typically have to compete with each other for access to female mates. Ancestral men who had traits such as aggressiveness and strength would have been more likely to win intrasexual competitions and climb to the top of social dominance hierarchies. Because their social status should have made them attractive to women, they may have reproduced many times, while men at the bottom of dominance hierarchies, who lacked desirable mating features, may not have reproduced at all (Buss & Schmitt, 2019). In this manner, men may have evolved a tendency toward high levels of agentic traits. Again, these traits would then result in men being stereotyped as the more agentic sex.

Social Role Theory

Social role theory views gender stereotypes as arising from and reflecting large-scale sex differences in the types of social roles that women and men typically occupy (Eagly, 1987; Eagly & Wood, 2011). Across cultures and times, women and men have historically occupied different social roles, with women more often performing domestic and child-rearing duties and men more often performing physically demanding and risky duties, such as hunting, warfare, and herding. In contemporary Western cultures, this traditional division of labor manifests in at least two ways. First, although this varies by race and class, women are more likely than men to fill homemaking roles, while men are more likely than women to be employed outside the home. Second, in the paid workforce, women are more likely than men to occupy low-status positions, while certain men more frequently occupy high-status positions. According to social role theory, this distribution of women and men into different types of roles then drives gender stereotypes. That is, because people observe women (more often than men) performing child-rearing activities, they infer that women possess high levels of the traits necessary for childcare, such as warmth, nurturance, and selflessness. Similarly, because people observe certain men (more often than women) occupying high-status workplace roles, they infer that men possess qualities essential for success in these roles, such as agency, competence, and assertiveness.

Social role theory The theory that gender stereotypes stem from people’s observations of the social and occupational roles that women and men typically perform.

In a classic test of these ideas, Eagly and Steffen (1984) asked participants to consider either “an average woman” or “an average man,” who was either employed full-time or a stay-at-home homemaker and parent. In a third condition, participants did not receive any information about the woman’s or man’s occupation. When people did not receive any information about the target person’s occupation or role, they relied on gender stereotypes to rate the average woman as higher on communion and lower on agency than the average man. When they had information about the targets’ occupations, however, people’s ratings of communion and agency followed from the occupations rather than from the targets’ sex. Both female and male homemakers were rated equally high in communion, and female and male employees were rated equally high in agency.

According to social roles theory, gender stereotypes reflect sex-based labor divisions. For instance, men are disproportionately represented among higher-status executive roles, while women are disproportionately represented among lower-status and homemaker roles.

Source: ©;

More recently, Koenig and Eagly (2014) presented participants with sets of occupations in which Black women, White women, Black men, and White men are overrepresented in the United States. For instance, Black men are overrepresented as athletes, laborers, and bus drivers, and White women are overrepresented as homemakers, teachers, and nurses (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005). Participants rated the communal and agentic traits associated both with the occupations and with the sex and race groups, and these correlations were very strong (r values ranging from .68 to .90). This means that stereotypes of different sex and race groups on communion and agency correspond very closely with the traits presumably needed for these groups’ typical occupations.

Biosocial Constructionist Theory

As you read in Chapter 3, biosocial constructionist theory is an extension of social role theory that draws on both evolutionary and social approaches (W. Wood & Eagly, 2012). According to this perspective, all human societies benefit from dividing labor activities, such as infant care, hunting and gathering, and building, in a manner that maximizes efficiency. In some cases, this means using sex to determine labor suitability because some activities are more (or less) efficiently performed by members of one sex. For instance, the biological fact of women’s role in childbearing and nursing means that women can more efficiently perform infant care responsibilities. Conversely, with greater size and strength on average, men can more efficiently perform labor activities requiring strength and endurance such as hunting, building, exploring, and fighting off predators. Thus, while not all women bear children and not all men are big and strong, labor divisions based on sex generally offer practical and efficient solutions.

Two outcomes follow from this sex-based labor division. First, following the logic described in the prior section, people’s gender stereotypes reflect their observations of what people of different sexes do in their daily lives. Second, cultures socialize children to adopt the traits and preferences that will facilitate performance of their future labor activities. While girls are encouraged to be kind, emotionally responsive, and tidy (qualities essential to childcare and home management), boys are encouraged to be brave, confident, and active in preparation for competitive workplace roles.

To summarize, evolutionary psychology emphasizes genetically encoded differences between women and men that fuel cultural stereotypes, and social role theory emphasizes how stereotypes emerge from sex-based divisions of labor. The biosocial constructionist theory combines ideas from both of these approaches but refrains from suggesting that women and men are genetically predisposed to display different personality traits. Instead, the biosocial model suggests that physical differences between men and women account for sex-based divisions of labor, which then produce gender stereotypes and fuel gender socialization practices.

Note that these approaches differ in the prospects for change that they offer. If, as evolutionary theories posit, gender stereotypes reflect genetic differences between women and men, then stereotypes will only change as fast as our genes do. In contrast, if gender stereotypes reflect sex-based divisions of labor, then they can change rapidly, as economic and sociocultural factors shift. In one test of this idea, Bosak, Eagly, Diekman, and Cszesny (2018) explored gender stereotypes in Ghana, a country that has made steady progress in women’s empowerment in the past two decades. They found increases in perceptions of women’s masculine characteristics and men’s feminine characteristics over time. Thus, as the roles of Ghanaian women and men have become more similar over time, so too have the contents of their gender stereotypes, suggesting that gender stereotypes are modifiable.

Think back, however, to the findings we described earlier that showed that communal and agentic gender stereotypes have not changed substantially in the United States since 1983 (Haines et al., 2016), despite women assuming increasingly more agentic roles over time. Does the lack of changes in U.S. gender stereotypes over the past 30 years suggest that the social roles approach is wrong? Not necessarily. As you will read in Chapter 11 (“Work and Home”), the distribution of women and men into sex-typed occupations has not changed as much since the early 1990s as it did between the 1960s and 1980s. Perhaps the changes that occurred over the past 30 years have not been dramatic enough to produce noticeable differences in our gender stereotypes.


With advances in automation and digital technologies, postindustrial societies are shifting from jobs that require physical strength (like factory work and manufacturing) to jobs that require technological skill and cognitive abilities (like critical thinking and problem solving). Consequently, there may be less sex segregation of occupations in the future. What would evolutionary psychologists predict about changing gender roles and their relationship to gender stereotypes? What would social role theorists and biosocial constructionists predict?


Gender stereotypes double as gender rules. That is, they do not merely describe what we think women and men are like—they also convey cultural expectations about the traits that women and men ought (and ought not) to have. Whereas gender prescriptions are traits that people believe women and men should exhibit, gender proscriptions are traits that women and men should not exhibit (Rudman et al., 2012). For women, prescriptions include warm, interested in children, and attentive to appearance, while proscriptions include rebellious, arrogant, and promiscuous. For men, prescriptions include athletic, self-reliant, and rational, and proscriptions include emotional, childlike, and gullible.

The fact that gender stereotypes serve as rules for behavior has two important consequences. First, if a culture values a stereotype (for example, the stereotype that men should be assertive and that women should be child-oriented), people will feel pressure to conform to it, and those who do not conform can face punishment. Second, when a gender stereotype is negative (for example, the stereotype that girls do not excel at math or science), this can lead to personal anxieties or interpersonal behaviors that reinforce the stereotype. We will consider each of these processes in turn.

Gender prescriptions Traits that people believe women and men should have.

Gender proscriptions Traits that people believe women and men should not have.

Status incongruity hypothesis The assumption that gender role—violating women are viewed negatively because they are seen as too dominant, while gender role—violating men are viewed negatively because they are seen as too low in status. These perceptions violate the gender status hierarchy and make people uncomfortable.

Penalizing Gender Role Violators

What happens when people violate gender rules? Recall that in Chapter 4 (“Gender Development”), we considered some of the consequences of gender nonconformity among children and adolescents. Just as children and teenagers who violate gender rules receive social sanctions, adult gender role violators similarly receive negative evaluations from others. We already alluded to a few of these negative evaluations when we discussed both the women-are-wonderful effect and subgrouping: Women who belong to nontraditional subgroups (e.g., “feminists,” “temptresses”) are stereotyped less favorably than traditional women, especially if these subgroups are associated with gender proscriptions (e.g., arrogant, promiscuous; DeWall, Altermatt, & Thompson, 2005).

But why are gender role—violating women viewed so negatively? According to the status incongruity hypothesis, people stigmatize such women because they seem “too high” in dominance (Rudman et al., 2012). This hypothesis argues that gender rules serve to justify and reinforce the unequal gender hierarchy in which certain men, across cultures and times, routinely have higher social status than women. Because the behavior of agentic women appears incongruous with their expected low social status, it raises questions about the very legitimacy of the gender hierarchy. After all, if women can demonstrate agentic traits associated with high status, then why do we routinely allow certain men more access to power and status than women? To avoid this uncomfortable question, we penalize women who display high-status, agentic traits by viewing them as less likeable and less hireable than similarly agentic men. Likewise, when men exhibit proscriptive traits associated with low status, such as modesty, they are liked less than comparably modest women (Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Rudman, 2010). Again, Rudman and her colleagues explain this by suggesting that men who violate gender rules challenge the gender status quo, which makes people uncomfortable.

Beyond receiving negative evaluations, gender role violators are penalized in other, more serious ways. As we discussed in Chapter 4, gender-nonconforming youth are targeted with especially high rates of rejection, bullying, and harassment by peers (Pauletti et al., 2014). And as you will read in subsequent chapters, LGBT individuals—who are widely viewed as gender role violators—face disproportionately high rates of physical and verbal abuse, sexual violence, family rejection, and workplace harassment (Grant et al., 2011; Hughto, Reisner, & Pachankis, 2015; Klein & Golub, 2016). These punishments can have serious and long-lasting consequences for physical and mental health, which we will consider in greater depth in the “Health and Well-Being” unit of this book (Chapters 12—14).

Confirming Negative Stereotypes

As noted, many gender stereotypes are negative. For example, people in many cultures view girls as less capable at science and math than boys. How do you think this stereotype might affect girls? According to research on stereotype threat, members of negatively stereotyped groups often feel anxiety about the possibility of confirming negative group stereotypes. This anxiety, in turn, can undermine performance in high-stakes testing situations. To illustrate, when women or girls are reminded about negative math stereotypes prior to completing a series of difficult math problems, they perform more poorly than when not first reminded about the negative stereotype (Schmader & Johns, 2003). This performance decrement seems to occur because reminders of negative stereotypes increase test-taking anxiety and reduce working memory capacity (Rydell, McConnell, & Beilock, 2009). As you will read in Chapter 7 (“Cognitive Abilities and Aptitudes”), several meta-analyses indicate that stereotype threat can affect the performance of girls and women on math tests, but the effects are modest and depend on several factors (Flore & Wicherts, 2015; Picho, Rodriguez, & Finnie, 2013; Shewach, Sackett, & Quint, 2019). For instance, negative effects of stereotype threat on girls’ math performance are larger in world regions characterized by greater gender inequality (e.g., southern Europe and East Africa) than they are in more gender-egalitarian regions (e.g., western and northern Europe). Within the United States, stereotype threat effects are larger in southern and midwestern states than in the Northeast and West. This may indicate that stereotypes linking gender to math performance are weaker in regions with less traditional gender rules.

Stereotype threat Anxiety individuals feel when concerned that their behavior or performance might confirm a negative group stereotype.


In June 2019, the United Kingdom made it illegal for advertisements to include gender stereotypes that potentially cause harm or widespread offense (Tiffany, 2019). While it is virtually impossible to avoid all stereotypical portrayals of gender in ads, the ban focuses on those that reinforce the most harmful or denigrating stereotypes (e.g., people “failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender” or women prioritizing “their looks or home cleanliness over their emotional health”). Although well-intentioned, the guidelines may prove vague and difficult to enforce in practice.

Self-fulfilling prophecy The interpersonal process in which a perceiver’s expectation about a target influences the target’s behavior in such a manner that the target’s behavior fulfills the perceiver’s expectation.

Negative stereotypes can also have interpersonal consequences, affecting people’s expectations and therefore their behaviors toward members of stereotyped groups. For example, if a teacher holds the stereotype that girls lack proficiency at math, she may interact in subtly different ways with girls and boys in her classroom. She may give more attention to boys than girls during math class, or she may provide hints to boys (but not girls) who struggle with math problems. Over time, these repeated interactions can undermine girls’ confidence in math, leading them to exert less effort or to disengage from math. Psychologists refer to this interpersonal process—in which a stereotype shapes how group members are treated, which then yields outcomes that “prove” the stereotype true—as a self-fulfilling prophecy (see Figure 5.2). The existence of self-fulfilling prophecies means that gender stereotypes can become true not because of inborn, biological factors but due merely to biased expectations. In sum, both stereotype threat and self-fulfilling prophecies can reinforce stereotypes by eliciting stereotype-consistent performance or behavior.


Figure 5.2 A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy


Generate another example of a self-fulfilling prophecy that follows the three steps outlined in Figure 5.2. What negative consequences might come from the self-fulfilling prophecy in your example? What are some ways to prevent your self-fulfilling prophecy from happening?


People sometimes assume that stereotypes are inaccurate by definition. You may have heard someone say, “Oh, that’s not true; it’s just a stereotype,” as if a stereotype is nothing more than a myth. In fact, some psychologists do view gender stereotypes as inherently inaccurate, oversimplified, and exaggerated. However, others claim that stereotypes are actually pretty good representations of reality. So, which is it? We explore this issue here, as well as in the chapter debate.


Debates over the accuracy of social stereotypes have a long history in psychology. While some theorists debate the appropriate methods for determining accuracy, others debate the very value of the question itself. Because people often use stereotypes to justify unequal systems of power, some consider the question of their accuracy a dangerous one. For example, if women really are warmer and less competitive than men, perhaps it makes sense to expect women to become homemakers instead of business leaders. As you can imagine, this conclusion is not one that many gender researchers wish to promote. Despite the controversy of this topic, researchers do examine stereotype accuracy. Here, we introduce you to the basic positions on each side of this issue.


A great deal of research examines the statistical (i.e., numerical) accuracy of gender stereotypes about personality traits, verbal and nonverbal communication, cognitive abilities, and happiness. By and large, this research suggests that gender stereotypes are pretty accurate. There are exceptions, of course, but the overall trend favoring the accuracy of gender stereotypes outweighs these exceptions. For example, when comparing people’s beliefs about the size of sex differences with the actual size of sex differences, people are quite accurate on average (Swim, 1994). Overall, reviews of whether stereotypes exaggerate real differences yield mixed results. Even though stereotypes sometimes exaggerate the size of real sex differences, many stereotypes are statistically accurate and others underestimate real sex differences.

Lee Jussim and his colleagues called stereotype accuracy (including the accuracy of stereotypes about gender) “one of the largest and most replicable effects in all of social psychology” (Jussim et al., 2016, p. 31). People may think gender stereotypes are inaccurate because the most accessible stereotypes (that is, the gender stereotypes that are easiest to bring to mind) are ones that exaggerate differences between women and men (Eyal & Epley, 2017). However, on the whole, people have a pretty good sense of the size and direction of actual sex differences on traits and behaviors.


To understand the argument that gender stereotypes are not accurate, it is important first to understand the distinction between generic beliefs and statistical beliefs (Cimpian, Brandone, & Gelman, 2010). Generic beliefs pertain to categories as wholes, without any reference to numbers or proportions. For example, the statement “Women are friendly” expresses a generic belief. In contrast, statistical beliefs pertain to proportions or numbers, such as the statements “Most women are friendly” and “Women are friendlier than men.” These statements imply numbers because “most” implies “more than 50%,” and “friendlier than” implies a numerical comparison between two groups’ mean friendliness levels. Importantly, generic beliefs are detached from numbers or statistics, and people tend to hold them regardless of what the statistics or evidence suggests (Bian & Cimpian, 2017).

When measuring stereotype accuracy, researchers tend to examine people’s statistical beliefs about sex categories. For example, Löckenhoff et al. (2014) asked respondents to rate the personalities of a typical woman and man on 5-point scales, while Janet Swim (1994) had respondents indicate the percentages of women and men whom they expected to display certain traits or tendencies. In these and other cases, researchers asked participants to report their statistical beliefs about gender, not their generic beliefs about gender. Thus, as Bian and Cimpian (2017) suggest, research on stereotype accuracy only tells us that people’s statistical beliefs about gender are fairly accurate. This work, however, reveals nothing about the accuracy of people’s generic beliefs about gender.

So, the issue of stereotype accuracy boils down to the question of whether stereotypes are more like statistical beliefs or more like generic beliefs. According to Bian and Cimpian (2017), most stereotypes are more like generic beliefs than statistical ones. In other words, stereotypes link groups with traits in a generic way, such as “Men are aggressive” and “Women are pretty.” Since stereotypes really act like generic beliefs, and generic beliefs are largely inaccurate, unaffected by data, and resistant to change, it follows that widely held gender stereotypes are not necessarily accurate.

Now that you have read both sides of this debate, what do you think? Are gender stereotypes accurate or not? Which side of the debate seems more compelling? Which evidence do you find most and least convincing? Why?

Challenges: Defining “Reality” and Accuracy

Testing the statistical accuracy of gender stereotypes is difficult, in part because of several measurement challenges (Jussim et al., 2016). First, researchers must decide what criterion will serve as the index of “reality.” The central issue of stereotype accuracy is whether people’s stereotyped beliefs correspond to social reality. But measuring that social reality can be tricky. To resolve this dilemma, researchers often rely on actual sex differences in traits, behaviors, cognitive abilities, and other factors, as reported in meta-analyses and large-scale survey studies. In these studies, sex differences are often reported as effect sizes, or statistics that convey the size of the difference between groups. (Refer back to Chapter 2, “Studying Sex and Gender,” for a refresher on effect sizes.)

Second, researchers must decide which type of statistical accuracy to assess. One type, direction accuracy, refers to which group has more of a given quality than the other. For instance, if we stereotype men as stronger than women, and the average man actually outperforms the average woman on tests of physical strength, then the stereotype would be considered accurate for direction. A second, related type, discrepancy accuracy, conceptualizes accuracy in absolute terms—that is, how close to or far from reality is the stereotype? To assess this type of accuracy, researchers compute discrepancy scores between people’s beliefs about the size of a sex difference and the actual size of the sex difference. For example, we could ask people to rate how “warm” both women and men are and use those ratings to calculate an effect size for the stereotyped sex difference in warmth. We could then compare this to the effect size for the actual sex difference on warmth. This comparison would reveal the degree to which people’s stereotypes overestimate, underestimate, or match the actual sex difference. Note that this way of measuring accuracy also encapsulates direction accuracy but takes it one step further by considering its distance from the real size of the sex difference.

Direction accuracy Accuracy regarding the direction of a sex difference.

Discrepancy accuracy Accuracy regarding the specific size (and direction) of a sex difference.

Researchers have assessed both direction accuracy and discrepancy accuracy for a large number of traits, behaviors, and abilities, and we will summarize some of these results here. We will not, however, cover the accuracy of transgender or sexual minority stereotypes, as no studies have yet examined the accuracy of these stereotypes using the methods described here.

Generic beliefs Beliefs about categories as wholes, without reference to numbers or proportions.

Statistical beliefs Beliefs about categories that involve numbers or proportions.

Cognitive Stereotypes

The topic of sex differences in cognitive abilities has a long and controversial history, as you will read more about in Chapter 7 (“Cognitive Abilities and Aptitudes”). Because of the value that people place on intelligence and the links between intelligence and achievement, gender stereotypes about cognitive ability can have powerful consequences for the outcomes of women and men. For example, if members of a given culture stereotype boys as more skilled at science than girls, then that culture might structure educational settings and opportunities in a manner that more effectively fosters science abilities in boys than in girls (recall our discussion of self-fulfilling prophecies). Over the long run, as a result of such educational practices, men might enter the workforce generally better prepared than women for careers in science.

To assess the statistical accuracy of cognitive gender stereotypes, Diane Halpern and her colleagues asked participants to estimate the performance of male and female children and adults on 12 different cognitive tasks in domains of math, science, language and reading, social sciences, and humanities (Halpern, Straight, & Stephenson, 2011). On most of the cognitive tasks, stereotypes accurately reflected the direction of real sex differences. For example, stereotypes accurately placed girls and women ahead of boys and men on 3 of 4 verbal tasks, and they accurately placed boys and men ahead of girls and women on 3 of 5 math and science tasks. Moreover, stereotypes also accurately assumed no sex difference on tasks that showed no real sex difference. Thus, Halpern et al. concluded that gender stereotypes about cognitive abilities are largely accurate for direction. However, on 8 of the 12 tasks, stereotypes underestimated the size of the real sex difference, meaning that sex differences in some cognitive domains are larger than stereotypes suggest.

Personality Stereotypes

Researchers in one study asked respondents from 26 different countries to rate the typical male and female member of their nation on traits reflecting extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience (the Big Five personality dimensions; Löckenhoff et al., 2014). As indices of reality, these researchers used sex difference effect sizes derived from people’s self-reports of their own personalities as well as from observer ratings of women and men on the five factors. Consistent with the stereotypes that we have discussed in this chapter, respondents stereotyped women as higher than men on the warmth and positive emotions facets of extraversion as well as on the trust, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindedness facets of agreeableness. Men were stereotyped as higher than women on the assertiveness and excitement-seeking facets of extraversion and on the impulsiveness facet of neuroticism. On all but one of these facets, the stereotypes were correct for direction, and in most cases, stereotypes displayed good discrepancy accuracy.

Big Five personality dimensions Five primary dimensions that underlie differences in personality (extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience).

Nonverbal and Verbal Communication Stereotypes

Similar evidence of statistical stereotype accuracy exists for nonverbal communication. Briton and Hall (1995) asked participants to rate the frequency with which women and men demonstrated 20 different nonverbal behaviors (e.g., interrupts others and uses hands while speaking) and communication skills (e.g., can read others’ emotions from nonverbal cues) and then compared these with real sex differences as reported in meta-analyses. These researchers also examined stereotype accuracy separately for female and male perceivers and found no differences: Women’s and men’s stereotypes were accurate for direction on almost all of the behaviors. Interestingly, however, Shannon Holleran and her collaborators found evidence of stereotype inaccuracy in one important communication domain: general talkativeness (Holleran, Mehl, & Levitt, 2009). Despite the stereotype that women talk more than men, these researchers found no sex differences in talkativeness.

Stereotypes Across Multiple Domains

While the stereotype accuracy findings summarized thus far examined accuracy within single domains (e.g., personality or cognitive abilities), Janet Swim (1994) took a different approach. She examined the accuracy of people’s gender stereotypes across 17 different domains, including cognitive abilities, leadership potential, helpfulness, nonverbal communication, happiness, and susceptibility to persuasion. This allowed Swim to test whether people understand that sex differences in some domains (e.g., leadership) are generally larger than sex differences in other domains (e.g., happiness). This type of accuracy, called rank-order accuracy, is examined by computing correlations between stereotyped and actual sex differences across several dimensions; high correlations mean that stereotypes accurately reflect which sex differences are larger than others. Overall, Swim found a very large correlation between stereotyped and real sex differences across the 17 domains (r = .79), suggesting that gender stereotypes offer reasonably accurate information about the relative sizes of sex differences across domains (see Figure 5.3).

Rank-order accuracy Accuracy regarding the relative sizes of sex differences across different domains.


Figure 5.3 Correlation Between Stereotyped and Real Sex Differences

Source: Swim (1994).

In sum, much of the research presented here indicates that gender stereotypes are fairly accurate in a statistical sense. Nonetheless, as the issues raised in the debate make clear, it may be premature to conclude that the accuracy issue is fully resolved (see “Debate: Are Gender Stereotypes Accurate?”).


What do you think of using statistical accuracy—direction, discrepancy, or rank order—to draw conclusions about the accuracy of stereotypes? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? If stereotypes are generic beliefs—which are not based in evidence and are resistant to change—then does it make sense to measure their accuracy by examining statistical beliefs? What do you think is the best way of measuring the accuracy of stereotypes? Why?


Earlier in this chapter, you read that stereotypes about women’s communion and men’s agency are consistent across cultures. And in fact, J. E. Williams and Best’s (1990) cross-cultural data bear this out, when viewed from a “big-picture” perspective. However, when Amy Cuddy and her colleagues examined the data more closely, they observed some subtle but interesting cultural differences (Cuddy et al., 2015b). These researchers wondered whether gender stereotypes might differ as a function of core cultural values because people often attribute high levels of culturally valued traits to dominant social groups (Ridgeway, 2001). In individualistic cultures, such as the United States and many Western European nations, core values prioritize the individual’s goals over the group’s goals. Valued traits include agentic qualities, such as independence, autonomy, and self-reliance. In collectivistic cultures, including many South American, Asian, Middle Eastern, and African nations, core values prioritize the needs of the group over the needs of individuals. In these cultures, valued traits include communal qualities, such as social sensitivity, connectedness to others, and nurturance.

These children are members of the Samburu tribe of Kenya, a highly collectivistic culture that prioritizes group harmony over individual goals.

Source: © Hadyniak

Individualistic cultures Cultures (often found in western Europe and North America) that value independence and self-reliance and prioritize individual goals and needs over group goals and needs.

Based on this distinction, Cuddy and her colleagues predicted that members of individualistic nations would stereotype men (the dominant group) as high in individualistic traits, while collectivistic nations would stereotype men as high on collectivistic traits. To test this, the researchers reanalyzed Williams and Best’s (1990) original data but looked only at those traits (out of 300) that most clearly captured individualism (21 traits) and collectivism (27 traits). When looking only at this subset of traits, a new pattern emerged. The more individualistic the nation, the more people in that nation associated individualistic traits with men, and the more collectivistic the nation, the more people in that nation associated collectivistic traits with men.

What do you make of this finding? One take-home message is that gender stereotypes may not be as universal as once thought. In a finding that may seem to turn much of this chapter on its head, highly collectivistic nations stereotype men as the more other-oriented sex and women as the more self-reliant sex. But think about what this means in terms of core cultural values and dominant social groups. While the contents of gender stereotypes may not be as universal as once thought, the tendency to attribute the most culturally valuable traits to the dominant sex category (i.e., men) does appear to be universal. This suggests that gender stereotypes can serve as a means by which high-status groups maintain their power over lower-status groups. Turn to Chapter 6 (“Power, Sexism, and Discrimination”) for a deeper discussion of how stereotypes not only reflect but also perpetuate systems of status and power.

Collectivistic cultures Cultures (often found in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East) that value fitting in and group solidarity and prioritize group goals and needs over individual goals and needs.


· 5.1 Describe the contents and structure of gender stereotypes, especially in terms of the dimensions of agency and communion.

Of the many specific traits, roles, occupations, and physical attributes that are part of people’s gender stereotypes, most fall along two core dimensions: communion and agency. Communion reflects traits related to warmth, nurturance, and emotional sensitivity (qualities usually associated with girls and women), and agency reflects traits of competence, assertiveness, and status (qualities usually associated with boys and men). The content of gender stereotypes is generally consistent across cultures and, at least in the United States, the strength of people’s gender stereotypes has not changed over the past 30 years, perhaps because female and male social roles have not changed as rapidly since the early 1990s as they did from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Despite the universality of broad gender stereotypes, subgroups of men and women have unique stereotypes associated with them. For instance, stereotypes of career women cast them as more competent but less warm than stereotypes of homemakers. Furthermore, when considering an individual’s standing on multiple social categories (e.g., sex, race, class, disability status, and sexual orientation) simultaneously, unique stereotypes emerge. As an example, Middle Eastern women are stereotyped as quiet, which is not a stereotype associated with either women or Middle Eastern people in general. Stereotypes about transmen and transwomen portray them as more similar to each other than to their cisgender counterparts, although transmen are stereotyped as more similar to members of their assigned sex at birth than are transwomen. Stereotypes about gay men and lesbians largely portray them as similar to members of the other sex. Stereotypes of heterosexual people held by sexual minority individuals tend to contain traits such as “intolerant” and “close-minded,” likely reflecting heterosexism and intergroup tensions.

· 5.2 Evaluate the major theories of gender stereotypes.

Theories that seek to explain the origins of gender stereotypes offer different views of how malleable these beliefs are. Evolutionary psychologists view gender stereotypes as arising from genetically encoded sex differences, suggesting that these stereotypes are firmly entrenched and slow to change. In contrast, the social role and biosocial constructionist theories propose that sex-based labor divisions and occupations produce gender stereotypes. These latter approaches imply that stereotypes can shift more rapidly, as sex-based labor divisions change with time. The biosocial constructionist theory also notes that gender rules are adaptive because they prepare children for the roles that they will likely occupy as adults.

· 5.3 Discuss the social consequences of violating prescriptive and proscriptive gender stereotypes.

Gender stereotypes do not merely describe the traits, roles, and behaviors associated with women and men, but they also prescribe how members of each sex ought to be (e.g., women should be warm, and men should be self-reliant). In contrast, gender proscriptions describe traits that women and men should not have (e.g., women should not be arrogant, and men should not be emotional). According to the status incongruity hypothesis, gender rules justify the gender hierarchy that affords men more status than women. Thus, women who violate gender rules are penalized for being too dominant because they challenge the gender hierarchy, and men who violate gender rules are penalized for appearing too low in status. People reminded of negative stereotypes about their sex or gender group tend to experience stereotype threat, which can lead them to underperform. Gender stereotypes may also result in self-fulfilling prophecies. Stereotype threat and self-fulfilling prophecies can both reinforce stereotypes by eliciting stereotype-consistent behavior and limiting people’s success.

· 5.4 Analyze research and perspectives on the accuracy of gender stereotypes.

Cognitive approaches view stereotyping as part of a natural tendency to simplify a complex social world by reducing it into meaningful categories. Although this can lead to errors and overgeneralizations, stereotypes are not necessarily inaccurate. Some psychologists argue that gender stereotypes are statistically accurate, in terms of direction (which sex exceeds the other?), discrepancy (how large is the sex difference?), and rank-order accuracy (which sex differences are larger than others?). People’s reports of gender stereotypes about cognitive skills, personality, communication tendencies, and helpfulness tend to map accurately onto actual sex differences in these domains. Despite this, some argue that the accuracy question remains unanswered because the way that researchers assess stereotypes (as statistical beliefs) does not reflect how people actually hold stereotypes (as generic beliefs).

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 5.1. The contents of gender stereotypes tend to vary a lot from one culture to another. (False: The contents of gender stereotypes are largely consistent across cultures, with some exceptions.) [p. 160]

· 5.2. In the United States, the strength of people’s gender stereotypes has not weakened over the past several decades. (True: Gender stereotypes are endorsed just as strongly today as they were in the mid-1980s.) [p. 164]

· 5.3. Stereotypes about people who fall into multiple social identity categories (e.g., gay Black men) can be understood by combining or adding up the stereotypes of the individual groups that form the identity (e.g., gay people, Black people, and men). (False: Stereotypes about people who occupy multiple subordinate social identity categories often contain unique elements that are not found in the stereotypes of any of the individual groups.) [p. 173]

· 5.4. Gender stereotypes largely map onto the types of social roles and occupations that women and men perform. (True: Social role theory argues and finds that gender stereotypes accurately reflect the distributions of women and men into sex-based labor and role divisions.) [p. 176]

· 5.5. Being reminded of a negative gender stereotype can cause people to behave consistently with the stereotype. (True: When people are reminded of negative stereotypes about their gender group, this can cause anxious arousal and preoccupation that causes them to confirm the stereotype.) [p. 181]

Descriptions of Images and Figures

Back to Figure

The x axis is labeled agency and it ranges from low to high from left to right respectively. The y axis is labeled communion and it ranges from low to high from bottom to top respectively. Five different social groups with several components are listed as follows:

First group:

· It lies at low agency and low communion region.

· The three components from low to high agency and communion are:

o Homeless

o Welfare recipients

o Poor.

Second group:

· It lies near low agency and near high communion region.

· The three components from low to high agency are:

o Developmentally delayed

o Disabled

o Elderly.

Third group:

· It lies in between the low and high regions of both agency and communion.

· The seven components from low to high communion are:

o Hispanics

o Muslims

o Blacks

o Young

o North Americans

o Blue-collar

o Gay men.

Fourth group:

· It lies in the high communion and near high agency region.

· The five components from low to high communion are:

o Students

o Whites

o Middle class

o Women (Bolded)

o Christians.

Fifth group:

· It lies in the high agency and in between low and high region of communion.

· The six components from low to high communion are:

o Rich

o Men (Bolded)

o Jews

o Asians

o Professionals

o Educated.

Back to Figure

The three blocks are:

· Perceiver’s gender stereotypes

· Perceiver’s behavior toward target

· Target’s behavior toward perceiver.

The steps are assigned as arrows between each blocks and they are listed as follows:

· Step 1: From perceiver’s gender stereotypes to perceiver’s behavior toward target

· Step 2: From perceiver’s behavior toward target to target’s behavior toward perceiver

· Step 3: From target’s behavior toward perceiver to perceiver’s gender stereotypes.

Back to Figure

The x axis labeled stereotyped sex difference ranges from negative 1.00 to positive 1.50 in increments of 0.50. The y axis labeled real sex difference ranges from negative 1.00 to positive 1.00 in increments of 0.50. A straight, dotted line starts at (negative 1.04, negative 0.448) and ends at (1.59, 0.939). The seventeen domains along with the coordinates of respective plots are listed below:

· Reads nonverbal cues: (negative 0.981, negative 0.430)

· Involved in conversations: (negative 0.830, negative 0.321)

· Gazes during conversation: (negative 0.698, negative 0.678)

· Submits to group: (negative 0.474, negative 0.315)

· Verbal tests: (negative 0.631, negative 0.060)

· Easy to persuade: (negative 0.311, negative 0.163)

· Happy: (negative 0.233, negative 0.066)

· Easy to influence: (negative 0.051, negative 0.260)

· Verbal SAT: (negative 0.160, 0.103)

· Help when alone: (0.0748, 0.193)

· Help in emergency: (negative 0.0217, 0.333)

· Help in group: (0.0265, 0.418)

· Math tests: (0.286, 0.406)

· Math SAT: (0.467, 0.412)

· Restless: (0.316, 0.721)

· Leader: (1.035, 0.484)

· Aggressive: (1.028, 0.290).