Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: Alice Eagly

Pioneering Empirical Study of Gender Differences


eagly

The era of second-wave feminism, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, featured a renewed focus on remedying legal and social inequalities for women. Although the movement had visible political successes, like Title IX—and challenges, like the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment—psychological research wasn’t initially a robust part of the conversation. IPR social psychologist Alice Eagly was among a group of scholars who sought to change that. 

Though her early work centered on core issues of social psychology, covering how people evaluate social issues or how they think about and perceive other people, it was this great second wave of feminism that led her to “branch out to study gender in relation to those issues.” 

“Many questions were raised about men and women, about how they think, and what they do,” she explained. “There were many answers, but they came mainly from people who were journalists or who were writing just from personal experience. There was very little science-based work.”

Eagly, who has co-edited or authored many classic titles, including the textbook standard, The Psychology of Attitudes, is one of the world’s most-cited scholars in social psychology and in gender research. Her desire to see empirically sound research enter the discussion developed into a scholarly pursuit that has addressed important questions, from why so few women have high-level leadership positions to understanding the psychology of women and men.

Meta-Analyses and Gender Research

To begin to create the empirical research she thought was lacking, Eagly pioneered using meta-analyses to look at gender differences and similarities in existing psychological research.

“The studies were there, but they hadn’t been in any way deployed to study gender,” she said, “almost every study in psychology has both sexes in it, but that had often been ignored.”

So Eagly and colleagues used data from previous social psychology research—on those same core issues she had been studying—to compare female and male participants in those studies. 

“That was a unique opportunity—a coming together of statistical techniques for meta-analysis and a set of questions that had not been addressed empirically, but the empirical evidence or data were just sitting around waiting for somebody to scoop them up,” she said.

Social Role Theory 

In conducting the meta-analyses and doing her own primary research, Eagly constructed social role theory of gender. Briefly, it describes how each society’s division of labor accounts for our stereotypes of women and men and fosters gender differences. 

“If men and women occupy largely different roles, then we use that information to decide what kind of people they are; it’s not a mystery,” she said.

For example, if mainly women are seen caring for young children, we view women as more nurturing than men.  If mainly men are seen leading organizations and nations, we view men as more assertive and ambitious than women.

“Our observations create gender stereotypes, and we internalize them to some extent as our own gender identities,” Eagly continued. “These stereotypes become social norms that encourage people to stay within the domain of their own gender. Internalized as identities, stereotypes also affect behavior through self-regulatory processes whereby we feel good when we meet our own personal standards.”

She has used social role theory to examine a multitude of gender differences and similarities— helping behavior, aggression, social influence, mate choice—but she views leadership as one of the most important. 

“If you’re concerned about gender equality, leadership is the key issue,” Eagly said, citing the large disparities between men and women in positions of power. A substantial body of her recent work has defined leadership stereotypes and detailed the labyrinth that women must successfully navigate to access political or corporate leadership.

Expanding Beyond Gender 

One of Eagly’s recent lines of research has involved extending social role theory to examine stereotypes of other social groups, like racial or socioeconomic ones. In studying how social groups are differently represented in occupations, Eagly finds the same mechanisms are at play. 

“It’s easy for people to accept that gender stereotypes are based on the roles that men and women occupy, but it’s rather more difficult for people to go along with the idea that stereotypes for other groups are also based on observations of what they do.”

Eagly believes that the idea of “eliminating stereotypes” is noble but often misguided, as the way that we categorize people into groups, observe their typical behaviors, and make inferences about their attributes based on those observations reflects basic features of  human cognition. She believes social change—and thus, changes in the types of roles that groups of people typically occupy—is the only way to change the impressions that produce stereotypes and in particular to eliminate undesirable or disabling stereotypes. 

“People sometimes think that stereotypes should change or even disappear, but they can’t without fundamental social change of groups’ social position in society,” she said. “We have to change people’s everyday observations of a group before its stereotype will change.”

“We can teach people about stereotypes and how individuals are often misjudged in terms of them, and to some extent people consciously control or counter their own stereotyping. But to believe that you can prevent stereotypes violates our knowledge of human psychology,” she concluded.

Alice Eagly is James Padilla Chair of Arts and Sciences, professor of psychology, and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Alice Eagly