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Women Face a Catch-22 Despite Three-Decade Shift in Gender Roles

Women are now established in the workforce, but are still required to conform to expectations of femininity.

Women are now established in the workforce, but are still required to conform to expectations of femininity. (Image via Shutterstock)

Research on gender roles has shown that individuals consider men to embody more masculine (e.g. assertive, dominant) traits than women, and women to embody more feminine (e.g. gentle, sensitive) traits than men. But can these prescriptions change depending on the occupational roles of men and women?

In 1984, Eagly and Steffen sought to answer this question. They asked participants to attribute masculine and feminine traits to male and female employees and male and female homemakers.

The authors found no difference in femininity and masculinity scores of male and female homemakers. Additionally, there was no difference in femininity scores of male and female employees.

However, employee women were considered to be higher in masculine traits than employee men. The authors attributed this higher masculinity score of employee women to the still relatively novel experience in the workforce. It was suggested that a female employee would exhibit masculine traits, even more than her employed male counterparts!

What has changed from 1984 to 2014?

Recently, my colleagues and I sought to establish if these results could be replicated. As this research is almost 30 years old, it was of interest to see if social changes had changed these gender role prescriptions.

In particular, contemporary women have established their place in the workforce. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that “the proportion of women aged 15 years and over who were employed has steadily increased over the last quarter of a century (from 40% in 1979 to 53% in 2004)”. We posited that this change in male and female roles may have produced a change in prescribed gender roles.

In our study, 327 participants, both university and non-university students aged over 18, attributed masculine and feminine traits to employee men and women and homemaker men and women. And like Eagly and Steffen, we found no difference in femininity and masculinity scores of homemaker men and women.

However, unlike Eagly and Steffen, we also found no difference between masculinity scores of employee men and women. This time, results showed employee women were attributed higher femininity scores than employee men.

In sum, our results showed no change in homemaker men’s and women’s prescribed femininity and masculinity scores in the past 30 years. What has changed in 30 years is that employed women are now considered to be equally masculine in traits as employed men, but higher in femininity than employed men. Previously, employed women were higher in masculinity than employed men, and equal in femininity.

The more things change …

So what has spurred this change over time? Research describes masculine traits as agentic traits, which are characteristics associated with agency and thus success in employment. Perhaps employed women’s previously higher masculinity scores can be attributed to this premise.

Due to the relative novelty of women in the workforce in 1984, perhaps employed women were therefore considered to be high in masculine/agentic qualities, even more so than male employees. As this result was not found in 2014, women occupying employed roles may no longer be viewed as a social novelty. Indeed, these results suggest men and women in current employment do not differ in agentic attributes.

However, the results of the current study show that this change in masculine attributions is associated with a change in feminine attributions. Particularly, employed women were ascribed more feminine traits than employed men, a result not shown in 1984.

We suggest this is a direct result of the “Catch 22” women face in employment. The Catch 22 relates to the expectations that employed women exhibit high levels of agentic qualities, but do not compromise their feminine traits.

Compared to men, there appears to be a double standard for employed women. Employed women are encouraged to enact masculine behaviours, yet still maintain their femininity. This expectation has led to the “backlash effect”: women who display agentic behaviours may be perceived as more competent, but less likeable socially.

We suggest the results support the premise of a Catch 22. As the presence of women in employment has become stable, differences in perceived masculine traits of employed men and women have disappeared. However, the disappearance of perceived masculine traits is associated with an increase in femininity traits.

Specifically, female employees are now prescribed to be more feminine than male employees. Therefore, it appears that although we do now expect similar levels of masculine traits for employed men and women, we expect (and in some cases may even demand) that women do not compromise their femininity while they occupy these employment roles.

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