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The female psyche revisited: The importance of communion

Understanding the contours of the sex/gender divide gives insight into the female psyche.

By Alice H. Eagly, PhD

In an era when many people question the gender binary, it may seem retrograde for psychologists to write about the female psyche. Perhaps there is only a single human psyche, undifferentiated by sex. However appealing this view may be to those who strive for gender equality, I argue that a sex/gender divide remains largely intact, albeit weaker than in the past. Understanding the contours of this divide gives insight into the female psyche.

The Female Psyche: Stereotypes and Reality

Considerable information about the psyche of women derives from observing how they live their lives. Contrary to earlier centuries, most women in industrialized nations, including the United States, are employed outside of their homes throughout most of their adult lives and are also engaged in domestic work of caring for and serving family members. Despite the considerable movement toward gender equality inherent in women's employment, their lives have remained somewhat different from those of men.

Images Credit: Eleni Tsami:; Sree: https:// differences reflect the importance of sex segregation, which has remained remarkably pervasive in what can be termed a “neo-traditional division of labor.” For example, even when most women engage in paid work, their employment hours tend to be shorter than those of men, and they perform the majority of unpaid domestic work (e.g., U.S. Department of Labor, 2016; Schwab et al., 2016). Also, sex segregation in employment is considerable, whereby women dominate most service and caring occupations (e.g., administrative assistant, nurse, elementary school teacher). Although women have entered many higher-status occupations that were once male-dominated (e.g., professor, physician, manager), their participation remains low in things-oriented work (e.g., STEM fields and mechanical and construction trades; Lippa, Preston, & Penner, 2014) and in top leadership positions in organizations and governments (Carli & Eagly, 2017). This situation has led sociologists to claim that even now extreme gender segregation prevails in the United States and many other industrialized nations (e.g., Levanon & Grusky, 2016).

Each society's gender division of labor, including this present-day neotraditional one, sets in place a cascade of psychological and social processes by which people learn about the traits of each sex and furthermore come to enact them (Eagly & Wood, 2012). This learning starts with observation. Thus, people infer the traits of each sex in large part from observing their typical behaviors. For example, if women are commonly observed caring for and teaching children, they are thought to be nurturing and kind, and if men are commonly observed engaging in contact sports and fighting wars, they are thought to be tough and brave. Such gender role beliefs, investigated by psychologists as gender stereotypes, are shared within a society.

These beliefs promote socialization practices that encourage children to gain the skills, traits, and preferences that support their society's division of labor. Most adults tend to conform to these shared beliefs about women and men and may internalize them as personal standards for their behavior. By these processes, members of societies dynamically construct gender in a form tailored to the particular circumstances of their historical period and culture, and in complex societies, to their ethnic, racial, or religious subculture.

To understand how the gender system resulting from these processes influences women's psyches, psychologists should consider both what people believe are the psychological attributes of women and what scientific psychology has demonstrated. To determine what people think is true—that is, their gender stereotypes—researchers generally ask large samples of people to indicate what is typical of women or men or how these groups are generally regarded in society (e.g., Williams & Best, 1990). The beliefs that emerge as consensual constitute gender stereotypes.

Research of this type has shown that gender stereotypes prioritize the broad trait dimensions that Bakan (1966) labeled “communion” and “agency,” although minor themes involve physical attributes, cognitive abilities and other qualities (e.g., Diekman & Eagly, 2000; Prentice & Carranza, 2012). Prominent in stereotypes of women are communal traits, which consist of qualities such as friendly, warm, unselfish and expressive. Prominent in stereotypes of men are agentic traits, which consist of qualities such as masterful, assertive, dominant and competitive. In general, communal traits are other-oriented, and agentic traits are self-oriented (e.g., Abele & Wojciszke, 2014). People regard these beliefs as descriptive of the actual characteristics of women and men.

A first question about gender stereotypes is whether they are merely social myths—perhaps holdovers from earlier generations of profound gender inequality. If so, they would have very little to do with the current-day lives of women or men. However, much psychological research has established the overall group-level accuracy of these stereotypes, despite individual differences within each gender group. Given the deep experience that people have with both women and men, it is not surprising that their beliefs capture realities.

Stereotypes of social groups gain their accuracy because they reflect everyday observations of group members' behaviors in their typical roles (Koenig & Eagly, 2014). Stereotypic traits thus emerge by “correspondent inference” from observed role behaviors (Wood & Eagly, 2012). Therefore, people come to believe that men and women are psychologically different when they observe them regularly engaging in different types of activities; they then infer that differing traits account what they observe. For these reasons, as long as women and men are concentrated in roles that favor different attributes, distinctive gender stereotypes will coalesce around the behaviors required to enact their contrasting roles. To the extent that the division of labor varies by racial and ethnic groups and other demographic variables, gender stereotypes would reflect this variation (e.g., Ghavami & Peplau, 2013).

Many studies have assessed the accuracy of gender stereotypes, and at least moderate accuracy is the usual finding when traits are assessed by scientific methods. In relevant studies, these cultural stereotypes of women and men were correlated with criteria that are accepted by most research psychologists as valid assessments of the attributes that make up gender stereotypes. The content of the criteria can be, for example, (a) scores on psychological tests assessing abilities or personality traits, or (b) measures of, for example, aggressive, prosocial, or nonverbal behavior. Additional criteria rely on publicly available data—for example, criminal arrests or the distribution of the sexes into different activities and occupations.

Demonstrating stereotype accuracy, researchers have computed correlations between research participants' beliefs about women and men—that is, their gender stereotypes—and relevant empirical criteria (e.g., Hall & Carter, 1999; Halpern, Straight, & Stephenson, 2011 ; Swim, 1994 ). For example, in Hall and Carter's project, five samples of participants estimated sex differences (on scales ranging from 1 = males score higher to 9 = females score higher) in 77 specific attributes (e.g., smiles at others, openness to ideas, achievement in science courses, extraversion). These estimates, averaged to represent stereotypes, were correlated, across the 77 attributes, with the mean effect sizes of meta-analyses of psychological research on sex differences in these same attributes. These correlations ranged from .62 to .72. In general, beliefs about sex differences were moderately to highly correlated with the corresponding scientifically demonstrated sex differences. Thus, with considerable accuracy, gender stereotypes predict the results of relevant psychological research that has compared women and men.

Why are gender stereotypes so closely related to relevant psychological data on women and men? Everyday observations of behaviors in the typical roles of the sexes provide critical information that informs gender stereotypes. Psychological data thus affirm the cultural stereotype that concern for others (i.e., communion) is a pervasive theme of the female psyche. This conclusion is consistent with qualitative analyses of earlier writers such as Miller (1976) and Gilligan (1982).

The Psychology of Women: Choice or Coercion?

There is one major caveat to the claim that gender stereotypes reflect the actual traits of men and women. The qualities that are typical of women and men might mainly reflect the influence of prescriptive social norms that call for differing behaviors. From this normative perspective, the typical behaviors of each sex can be interpreted as coerced, at least to some degree, and thus not necessarily reflective of underlying traits. For example, tendencies of women to be nice and friendly may reflect their observations of backlash when they or other women violate the social norms that govern female behavior (Williams & Tiedens, 2016).

The view that gender-typical behaviors are to some degree forced or at least nudged by social pressures has considerable empirical support (e.g., Wood & Eagly, 2012). Some social scientists have gone further by arguing that gendered behavior is merely “doing gender” and thus a performance under the control of others' expectations (Butler, 1990; West & Zimmerman, 1987). Of course, gender stereotypes do function as shared expectations, or norms, that promote conformity in both sexes (Prentice & Carranza, 2012). Even in childhood, children are generally encouraged to pursue gender-normative activities. Parents use incentives to encourage gender-typed activities and interests, such as chores, toys, games and sports (Lytton & Romney, 1991). Children and adults react to others' gender-relevant expectations and realize that by conforming, they usually gain social approval, whereas deviating often yields social rejection.

Despite the power of social norms, gender is much more than a performance because it infiltrates the psyche and is a central aspect of most people's personal identity. To understand gender as identity, consider that children at an early age categorize themselves as members of a gender group. Awareness of oneself and others as male or female, which emerges by around 18 months of age, further develops as children learn what this categorization means in their culture through observation of the behaviors and events linked with each category (Ruble, Martin, & Berenbaum, 2006). Most, but not all, children then think of themselves as a girl or a boy and favor gender-typical activities.

To the extent that people categorize themselves as belonging to a gender group, they tend to self-stereotype, or ascribe the typical attributes of their gender in-group to themselves, and they accentuate differences from their gender out-group (Turner et al., 1987). For example, women may regard themselves as caring and compassionate and minimize the extent to which they think of themselves as aggressive and competitive. Gender stereotypes thus form the basis for gender identities, as individuals incorporate the cultural meanings of gender into their own psyches (Wood & Eagly, 2015).

People act on their gender identities through self-regulatory processes by which they control their behavior to be in line with their identity (Wood, Christensen, Hebl, & Rothgerber, 1997). Both men and women tend to experience positive affect when acting consistently with their personal gender standards and negative affect when acting in ways that depart from these standards. Valuing membership in one's gender group enhances these self-regulatory processes.

In summary, differences in the behaviors of women and men reflect two sets of influences: social regulation—the influence of gender-specific social norms—and self-regulation—the influence of one's own personal gender standards. Coercion and choice are thus intertwined. To emphasize only social regulation or only self-regulation in explaining gendered behavior is to miss the true complexity of causation.

Does Psychological Research Support the Claim that Women Differ From Men?

One reason that some psychologists may disagree with my argument that women in general differ from men in general is that they believe that sex differences are quite small, as demonstrated by contemporary meta-analyses. Hyde (2005) is an articulate proponent of this gender similarities position. However, the idea that most sex differences are small should be deconstructed by analysis of the considerable variability in the available meta-analytic data.

My claim that women are relatively more communal and less agentic than men refers to a thematic difference between female and male behavior and not merely to differences in particular traits and behaviors. Across behaviors, occasions, and situations, women lean toward behaviors that are more communal and men toward behaviors that are more agentic, reflecting the social- and self-regulatory causes noted in this essay. Yet, the particular ways that people can enact communion and agency in daily life vary greatly. For example, to express communion, women may help family members in the home or colleagues at work, be a sensitive listener for friends and family members, volunteer for community service, teach young children, donate money to organizations with altruistic goals, or even engage in organ donation. Any one type of communal behavior may differ only modestly between women and men, but aggregating across communal behaviors in many different settings produces patterns of difference that more strongly separate the sexes (see Ajzen, 1987; Epstein, 1983). Therefore, psychologists minimize the magnitude of differences by focusing on single traits and behaviors rather than on sets of related attributes.

Substantiating the existence of broadly defined differences between the sexes, psychological measures that average multiple thematically-related indicators that discriminate between women and men do produce relatively large effect sizes. For example, measures of gender identity that average across self-reported communal or agentic personality traits produced meta-analytic effect sizes of d = 0.73 for greater communion in women than men and d = 0.60 for greater agency in men than women (J. M. Twenge, personal communication, April 1, 2009, averaged across Twenge, 1997, data sets). The most recent estimate is for 2012, which was d = 0.72 for greater communion in women and d = 0.55 for greater agency in men (Donnelley & Twenge, 2017). Even more impressive, measures that average across self-reported interests and activities to represent people-oriented versus thing-oriented inclinations yielded the very large effect size of d = 1.18 (Lippa, 2010), thus showing that in general women are considerably more people oriented and less thing oriented than men. Such findings suggest substantial sex differences in general tendencies toward male-typical versus female-typical attributes and behaviors.

Implications of Women's Communion

Many feminists may fear that any generalization about sex differences other than gender similarity is dangerous for women because it may close them out of desirable opportunities. Surely, beliefs that the sexes differ can promote discrimination, often against women. However, communion can produce female advantage because it encompasses attributes such as social sensitivity and emotional intelligence that are increasingly valued in many occupations (Cortes, Jaimovich, & Su, 2016). In fact, women have a comparative advantage for jobs that require social skills, which include many better-paying, cognitively demanding jobs. This emphasis on social skills appears to have increased as organizational changes have fostered new modes of social interaction. For example, the cultural definition of leadership has changed to incorporate a greater emphasis on social skills (Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell, & Ristikari, 2011). In general, women's share of highly skilled, cognitively demanding jobs has increased in recent decades, especially in those positions that reward social skills (Cortes et al., 2016). Communal qualities can thereby enhance career success in some contexts as well as success in close relationships (Eagly, 2009).

Finally, this brief essay does not address nature and nurture or rule out causes of behavior that may derive from biological sex differences and be rooted in human evolution (Eagly & Wood, 2013). Indeed, women and men may prefer different types of social roles at least in part because of inborn physical and psychological qualities that might predispose women, for example, to seek roles that provide affordances for communal behavior. Partitioning how much the psyches of women and men are influenced by nature or nurture is a topic for a different essay.


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