Andree E. Abele qnd Bogdan Woiciszke
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AGENCY AND COMMUNION
Their implications for gender stereotypes
and gender identities
Sabine Sczesny, Christa Nater, and Alice H. Eagly
Agency and comnunion represent the two fundamental modalities of human nalure.
These dimensions, the so-called Big Two, represent self- versus other-orientation.
As srated by Abele and 'Wojciszke (2014, p. 196), "Agentic content refers to goal-
achievement and task functioning (competence, assertiveness, decisiveness), whereas
communal content refers to the maintenance of relationships and sociai function-
ing (benevolence, trustworthiness, morality)." These dimensions constitute meta-
concepts of human values, motives, traits, and behaviors. As we explain in this
chapter, agency and communion are essential to the analysis of gender stereotypes
and identities and their consequences.
Gender stereotypes: descriptive and prescriptive
Gender stereotypes are broadly defined as people's consensuai beließ about the
attributes of women and men. These stereotypes are culturally shared beließ and
can be descriptiue, pertaining to the characteristics of women and rnen, and prescrip-,
tiue, pertaining to the characteristics that women and men should or shouid not
have (Prentice & Catanza, 2A02). These stereotypes take the form of cognitive
schemas, or sets of beließ about each sex'
To assess gender stereotypes, researchers often have asked participants to rate
a typical woman or man, or women and men in general, on a variety of traits,
inciuding agentic (e.g., ambitious, assertive) and communal (e.g., caring, sensitive)
attributes. Although these direct, or explicit, measures are common, implicit rnea-
sures have produced similar findings (e.g., Rudman & Goodwin, 2004).
Results of such studies have shown that women are perceived as more com-
munal and less agentic than men (Williams & Best, 1982). Men are and should be
assertive and competitive but not weak, whereas women are and should be socially
sensitive and compassionate but not dominant. Although these gender stereotypes
104 Sabine Sczesny et al.
are present in most cultures, an exception is the greater communion ascribed to
men in some East Asian cultures (Cuddy et al., 201,5; Steinmetz, Bosak, Sczesny, &
Eagly, 2014). Also, as generally less salient themes, gender stereotypes include
beliefs about the cognitive abilities, role behaviors, occupations, and physical attri-
butes of men and women (e.g., Deaux & Lewis, 1984; Diekman & Eagly, 2000).
Another aspect of gender stereotypes is their relation to the societal status of
men and women. Specifically, agentic traits associated with men are linked with
high status, and communal traits associated with women are linked with low
status (e.g., Conway, Pizzamigiio, & Mount, 1996;). Finally, although the lower
societal status of women might suggest that the female stereotype is more negative
than the male stereotype, the female stereotype is the more evaluatively positive
stereotype, mainly due to the very positive value placed on communal qualities
such as kindness and consideration (Eagiy & Mladinic, 1994).
Sources of gender stereotypes
In general, gender stereotypes arise from life experiences in a given cultural con-
text. Because the sorting of women and men into different social roles produces
differences in their everyday behaviors, role behavior is a key source of what
people observe and thus represent in their beließ about the sexes. Consistent with
the correspondent inference principle (Gilbert & Malone,1995), people infer the
traits of men and women from observations of their behavior and generally do so
spontaneously. Because most behaviors are performed to enact social roles, the dis-
tribution of women and men into roles underlies gender stereotypes. For example,
observations of mainly women caring for children contribute to the beließ that
women are compassionate and kind.
The specific activities that comprise a division of labor derive in part from male
and female biology - rhat is, their evolved physical attributes, especially women's
reproductive activities and men's size and strength, which can al1ow some activi-
ties to be more efficiently performed by one sex or the other, depending on the
socioeconomic and ecological context. Human biology rhus interacts with the
environment to produce a division of labor.'Within societies, the division of labor
is perpetuated and legitimized through the formation of gender stereotypes rhat
make the contemporaneous division of labor seem natural and inevitable.
Although preindustrial societies offered various divisions of labor, a male bread-
winner and female homemaker arrangement emerged along with industrialization
and urbanizatton in F,urope and North America (Janssens, I997).In contemp otary
industrialized and postindustrial societies, given low birthrates and shortened or
optional lactation, women's reproductive activities are a much weaker constraint
on their activities. Therefore, both women and men typically engage in paid labor.
However, in an arrangement that might be called a neotraditional diuision of labor,
men generally have longer employment hours, and women continue to spend more
time than men on unpaid domestic work (Cohn, 2017). Also, despite a decrease
over time in the sex segregation of occupations in many industrialized nations (e.g.,
lmplications for Gender 105
Lippa, Preston, & Penner, 2014), nren still dominate most blue-collar jobs, many
of which have strengrh-intensive components. Yet, men's greater size and strength
are much less influenlial overall because most occupations now favor brains over
brawn, and technology lessens the strength demands of mosr kinds of physical
Despite these changes, occupations have remained profoundly sex-segregated.
'Women are overrepresented in occupations that especially reward social skills (e.g.,
nursing, teaching children) and underrepresented in things-oriented occuparions
(most STEM fields and mechanical and construction trades; Lippa et a1,, ZOI4).
The proportion of women is also low in occupations that especialiy reward agency
(e.g., top leadership roles; European Commission,2017). Sociologists rhus refer ro
horizontal gender segregation, by which women and men have occupations favoring
different traits and abilities, and uertical segregation by which men are concentrated
in occupations that yield greater starus and" power (Levanon & Grusky, 2016).
Social role theory proposes that everyday observations of rhe differing roles of
women and men provide information from which people derive gender stereotypes
(Eagly, 1987; Wood & Eagly, 201,2). The resulting beließ that women and men dif-
fer in agency and communion reflect essentialism, or the tendency to infer that dif-
ferent human essences underlie difßrences in behavior (Prentice & Miller, 2006).
People may assume that such essences follow from social or biological causes (Ran-
gel & Keller, 201I). These stereotypic beliefs have considerable accuracy ar group
level, that is, pertaining to women and men in general, due to their grounding in
observations of group members' behaviors in their typical social roles (Koenig &
EagIy, 2014).In this sense, stereotypes reflect social reality (Jussim, 2012). How-
ever, they are of course not accurate for individuals who arc atypical of their sex.
The perception of both sexes is influenced by their memberships in social groups
in addition to gender (intersectionality;Shie\ds, 2008). Hence, studying gender along
with groupings by sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, and social class reflects the
complexity of people's lives. lntersectional stereotypes can contain distinct elements
beyond gender stereotypes. For instance, gender stereotypes are closest to those of
'W'hites, whereas stereotypes about Black women are somewhat different from ste-
reotypes about women in general and Blacks in general (Ghavami & Peplau, 2013).
Gender stereotypes continue to receive support from contemporary occupa-
tional and domestic role segregarion (Levanon & Grusky, 2016). Thus, a com-
parison of gender-stereotypical beließ in the United States at earlier and recent
time points has revealed approximately the same agentic and communal beließ
(e.g., Haines, Deaux, & Lofaro,201.6). However, studies have failed to identify
women's gain in stereotypical competence, which presumably has occurred because
of their shift to paid employment and their grearly increased higher education. For
example, IJS survey research by the Pew Research Center (2015) found that respon-
dents beli.eved that women were higher than men on competence traits such as
organtzed, innovative, and intelligent, yet lower on agentic traits such as ambitious
and decisive. Also, research on so-called dynamic stereotype.s has shown a narrative
of.change whereby people believe that women have become and arc continuing
106 Sabine Sczesny et al
to become more agentic, whereas men are more constant in their attributes (Diek-
man & Eagly, 2000). In reality, women appear to have gained stereotypical com-
petence but much less agency given their slow rise into roles demanding qualities
such as dominance and competitiveness.
Consequences of gender stereotypes for occupants of
agentic and communal roles
Over the last decades, researchers have made substantial advances in under-
standing the consequences of gender stereotypes for women in agentically
demanding roles, especially in leadership roles. According to the lack oJfit model
(Heilman, 1983, 201,2) and the role congruity theory of prejudice toward female
leaders (Eagly & Karau, 2002),leadership roles are thought to require mainly
agentic qualities. Stereotypes of leaders and managers are thus more similar
to the characteri zation of men than women and portray leaders as higher in
agentic than communal traits (see meta-analysis by Koenig, EagIy, Mitche11, &
Ristikari, 201,1).'Women thus suffer from a mismatch between the leader role
and their female gender role.
Expectations triggered by this perceived mismatch can have far-reaching conse-
quences for women in leadership contexts. Their overriding challenge is to reconcile
the leader role's demand for a:gency and the female role's demand for communion,
creating a double bind. One consequence is that, as many experiments have demon-
strated, women are censored for violating the proscription against women engaging
in ciearly dominanr behavior (see meta-analysis by'Williams & Tiedens, 2016), even
though such behavior is generally appropriate to leader roles. In general, women
who occupy leadership positions are seen as less legitimate than their male coun-
terparts, triggering consequences such as challenges to their authority and reduced
cooperation (see review by Vial, Napier, & Brescoll,20t6).
As a result of these conflicting demands, female leaders can face a double
standard, such that for comparable levels of performance, they are evaluated
less favorably than male leaders, especially in male-dominated setcings (see
meta-analysis by Eagly, Makhgani, & Klonsky, 1992). For example, in studies
of managers (Heilman, Block, & Martell, 1995), men received higher evalua-
tions than women who performed equally wel1. Except in feminine settings,
women generally must display greater evidence of skill than men to be con-
sidered equally competent (Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1gg7). Also, as candidaces
for male-dominated jobs, women were less likely to receive positive evalua-
tions rhan equivalent men when evaluated by men (see meta-anaiysis by Koch,
D'Mello, & Sackett, 201'5).
The situation of men in female-dominated communal roles has received less
attention (Croft, Schmader, & 81ock,2015). One disadvantage that such men
experience is a lack of sane-sex role models, a deficit that women also experi-
ence in male-dominated roles. In addition, the incongruity and lack of fit the-
ories outlined above could be extended to consider the mismatch between the
lmplications for Cender l07
male stereotype and communal demands of female-typed occupations. Men are
often penalized when they enact communal behavior or are successful in femi-
nine domains and thereby violate male gender norms (Rudman, Moss-Racusin,
Phelan, & Nauts, 2012).
Men's occupancy of caring roles in the home and workplace can produce dou-
ble standards and double binds that mirror those that women experience in male-
dominated roles. For instance, men who were successful as employee relations
counselors (a female-dominated position) were perceived as less effective and were
granted less respect than successful women in the same job (Heilman & 'Wallen,
201,0). Also, an experiment found that male appiicants for an elementary teaching
position were perceived as more likely to be gay and less likeable (but not less hire-
able) than female applicants with similar qualifications (Moss-Racusin & Johnson,
2016).Infact, men working in childcare can be viewed as a safety threat because
some beiieve thal they might abuse children physically or sexually (Nentwich,
Poppen, Schälin, & Vogt, 2013).
Despite these and other studies suggesting male disadvantage in female-dominated
jobs, recent experimental evidence suggests that men may sometimes be favored
over women for such positions, although more by female than male evaluators (see
meta-analysis by Koch et a1., 2015). Perhaps such data reflect a concern, especially
on the part of women, for integraring jobs in the female ghetto.
Other evidence also suggests that, contrary to the doubie standard, persons
from the underrepresented sex are sometimes affirmatively hired over equally
qualified persons from lhe overrepresented sex. For instance, in a field experi-
ment, excellent fictitious female applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships
in STEM disciplines were preferred with a ratio of 2:L over equally qualified male
applicants by faculty members at numerous US universities ('W.illiams & Ceci,
2015). Moreover, data from actual hiring at 89 US lesearch-intensive insritutions
showed that in the sciences in general, women who applied for academic posi-
tions had a better chance of being interviewed and receiving offers than did male
job candidates (National Research Council, 2010). Furthermore, an organization's
commitment to diversity goals can favor those women who appear ro have the
abilities necessary for reaching the upper echelons of orgamzations. Such women
received higher pay rhan high-potential men (in field studies and experiments;
Leslie, Manchester, & Dahm ,2017).In addition, male vanguards in female-typed
professions can profit from structural advantages that tend to promote them into
leadership positions (the glass escalator; 'Williams, 201,3).
Intersectional stereotypes based on memberships in multiple groups can have
complex implications in difßring contexts, as revealed in experiments varying
such attributes. For instance, Black female leaders were evaluated more negatively
for organizational failure than'White women and Black and'White men (Rosette &
Livingston,2012). However, Black female leaders behaving dominandy did not
suffer from lhe same agency penalty that White female leaders experienced, prob-
ably because Black women's stereotype typically includes agentic attributes (Liv-
ingston, Rosette, & -W.ashington, 2012).
f08 Sabine Sczesny et al
Gender identity is individuals' self-definition as female or male, which is based
on their biological sex as interpreted within their culture (Wood & Eagly, 2015).
'When people describe who they are, most indicate that being ^man or woman or
boy or girl is important to their identity and ascribe at least some gender-stereo-
typical traits to themselves
The most basic aspect of gender identity is an existential sense of oneself as
female or male, which ordinarily corresponds to one's biological sex. Psycholo-
gists have invented various direct and indirect methods for assessing this basic or
existential categoization of oneself as male or female. The most popular measure
adapts Luhtanen and Crocker's (1992) collective self-esteem scale with items such
as "Being a woman [man] is an important reflection of who I am."
At an early age, children typically learn that there are two sexes and that they
belong to one of these groupings (Martin & Ruble, 2010). Awareness of self and
others as male or female, which emerges by around 18 months of age, further
develops as children learn what this ciassification means in their culture. Observa-
tions of other boys and girls motivate children to act similarly by, for example,
playing with gender-typical toys.
As children mature, their personal experiences and observations of others
shape their ideas about the sexes into gender stereotypes, which form one basis
for their identities as they incorporate the cultural meanings of gender into their
own psyches. To the extent that people value their female or male group member-
ship, they tend to self-stereotype by ascribing culturally feminine or masculine
attributes to themselves. The link between selGcategorization in a social group
and the application of the group stereotype to oneself is a key principle of social
identity theory (Abrams, Thomas, & Hogg, 1990). For example, among those
who value belonging to their male or female social category, women may regard
themselves as caring and compassionate and men regarded themselves as strong
To assess this self-stereotyping aspect of gender identity, psychologists typi-
cally obtain self-reports from women and men of their agentic and communal
personality traits by having them respond on rating scales (Bem, 1974; Spence &
Helmreich, 1980). These dimensions of personality thus match gender stereotypes,
and, in fact, were derived from earlier research demonstrating these stereotypes
(Rosenkrantz, Vogel, Bee, Broverman, & Broverman, i96B). Implicit measures
have also been adapted to assess this trait aspect of gender identity (e.g., Green-
wald & Farnham, 2000).
People act on their gender identities through self-regulatory processes, by
which they control their behavior to conform to their identity ('Wood, Chris-
tensen, Hebl, & Rothgerber, 1997). Persons who value their identity as a woman
or a man experience positive affect when acting consistently with their personal
gender standards and negative affect when acting in ways that depart from these
standards. These emotions then guide their future actions.
lmplications for Cender lO9
Peopie incorporate more complex forms of gender into intersectional identities
(Remedios &Snyder, 2015).ln addition, not everyone is strongly gender-identified,
and instead some people completely reject gender distinctions (genderqueer). Fur-
thermore, even though gender identity usually matches biological sex (cisgender),
variations exist, with some people transitioning to the other sex (transgender) and
somelimes modifying their biological sexual characteristics (transsexual). Other
people resist internalizing aspects of their gender's stereotype, as some women may
embrace high, not low, agency.
Gender identity related to behavior
Gender identity works together with stereotyping to influence behavior. To the
extent that women ascribe low agency to themselves or are aware of the stereo-
type that women lack agency, they can engage in self-limiting behavior such as
making less ambitious career choices (Heilman, 2012). Mere awareness of others'
stereotype-based expectations can produce stereotype threat that impairs their
performance (see review by Hoyt & Murphy, 2016). Many studies have shown that
individuals whose identities are threatened in a particular evaluative context can
suffer from impaired performance. Being especially identified with one's gender
increases vulnerability to such performance effects because the pertinent stereo-
type is personally relevant (e.g., Schmader,2002).
'Women can experience stereotype threat when attempting leadership. In an
experimental demonstralion, students viewed television commercials featuring
female-stereotypic (vs. neutral) content (Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005). 'Women,
but not men, exposed to the female-stereotypic portrayals subsequently expressed
less preference for a leadership role than a no-leadership role. Chronic threats of
this type can have profound impiications for women's identities in male-dominated
contexts (Pronin, Steele, & Ross, 2004).In such situations, women may engage
in identity bfurcation, by which they prioritize their identity in the domain being
evaluated (e.g., leadership, mathematics) and reject aspects of typical feminine iden-
tity that could threaten their domain competence (e.g., planning to have children).
This reaction seems to be a high price to pay for maintaining a sense of domain
competence. Also, female leaders' worry that others think that women have trouble
exerting authority can cause them to falter, lose confidence, and even to withdraw
(Hoyt & Murphy, 201.6).
Experimental research has related gender identities to various outcomes.
'Women perceived themselves as less suitable for an advertised leadership position
than men, but the candidates' agentic gender identity related more strongly to
their self-ascribed fit with the leadership position than their sex (Bosak & Sczesny,
2008). Furthermore, women working in collaboration with men were unwilling
to take an equal amount of credit for successful joint outcomes (Haynes & Heil-
man,2013), presumably because of their less self-assertive identities as well as oth-
ers' beließ that women should be modest.
1 1O Sabine Sczesny et al
Gender stereotypes and gender identities can complicate men's performances
as well. Stereotype threat can undermine men in communal roles, given, for
example, the stereotype that men are deficient in social skills. In an experiment
in which male participants learned that a test measured social sensitivity and that
women generally scored better on this test, these men performed worse than men
who had not been alerted to this female-favoring stereotype (Koenig & Eagly,
2005). 'Women, in contrast, were less affected by this information, performing
non-significantly better when exposed to the female superiority message. In
fact, men may be especially vulnerable to threat in such situations according to
the argument that male gender identity, or manhood, is a precarious social status
that is difficult to achieve and needs to be confirmed through visible actions
(Vandello & Bosson,2013). Therefore, as experinlents have shown, men may be
more anxious than women to guard and confirm their gender identity, moti-
vating agentic behaviors and restraining communal behaviors. The enhancement
of agentic behavior occurred when threats to men's masculinity increased their
aggression (Bosson, Vandello, Burnaford, -Weaver, & Arzu 'Wasti, 2009) and the
harassment of women (Maass, Cadinu, Guarnieri, & Grasselli, 2003). Specifically,
threats to men's masculinity increased their aggression and harassing behavior
toward women. Threatening men by informing them that they had low (vs. high)
testosterone caused them [o express more traditronal attitudes toward parenting
and less support for gender equality and collective egalitarian action (Kosakowska-
Berezecka et al., 201.6).
Other research has tested predictions about gender identity in natural sertings.
In general, agentic identity predicted sellassertive outcomes such as career suc-
cess (e.g., Abele, 2003; Evers & Sieverdtng,20l,4). Communal identity predicted
relational outcomes such as involvement in family roles (e.g., Abele, 2003) and
satisfaction in close relationships (e.g., Steiner-Pappalardo & Gurung, 2002). In
longitudinal research, such outcomes manifested even 10 years after the initial
assessment of gender identity (Abele & Spurk, 201,1).
Despire societal changes in recent years, apparently the communal and agen-
tic gender identities of women and men have converged only a small amount
between 1974 and 201.2, mainly by women viewing themselves as slightly more
agentic than in earlier years (see meta-analysis by Donnelly & Twenge, 2017).
An initial tendency for women's agency to increase sharply during this period
then faded, to produce only a smali increase overali. Given little overall change
in men's agency or men's or women's communion, sex differences in agentic
and communal gender identities have remained substantial: d:012 for greater
communion in women and d: 0.55 for greatet agency in men. This phenom-
enon should not be surprising, given the persistence of agentic and communal
stereotypes that we noted earlier and the striking segregation of occupational and
domestic roles that continues to fuel these stereotypes. Such findings suggest that
gender, understood in terms of agency and communion, has so far not yielded
much in response to changes in women's roles or to the ongoing challenges to
the gender binary.
lmplications for Cender 111
The Big Two - agency and communion - are overriding themes in psychological
gender research. Social scientists, especially psychologists, have widely adopted
these concepts to describe gender stereotypes and gender identity and their con-
sequences for behavior. Refleccing psychologists' idea that masculine stereotypes
have. served largely as negative forces slowing women's attainment of gender
equality, it seemed that change in women's roles would boost their agency. Indeed,
women more often complete higher education, have taken up paid work and
entered many higher status occupational roles. 'What many scholars of gender have
missed is the preservation of the agency-communion divide in social roles, despite
these changes. Women remain concentrated primarily in communally demanding
occupations. In addition, women's entry into agentically demanding occupations
such as management and law has triggered internai resegregation. 'Women are
underrepresented in the subareas of these professions regarded as more agenti-
cally demanding (e.g., top leadership roles in corporations and government) and
overrepresented in the subareas regarded as more communally demanding (e.g.,
human resources management; Levanon & Grusky, 201,6).In addition, men have
shown little movement into female-dominated roles, either in the workplace or
in families (Croft et a1., 201,5). This neotraditional division of labor perpetuates
gender-stereotypical beliefs about agency and communion as well as matching sex
differences in gender identity.
Ilnderstanding of these phenomena could be furthered by information from a
broader range of cultures. Although some researchers have incorporated data from
many nations (e.g.,'Wiliiams & Best, 1982), the majority of studies come mainly from
'Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic cultures (Henrich, Heine, &
Norenzayan,2010), with the United States being decidedly overrepresenled.
As another limitation, theoretical and empirical work on agency and com-
munion has often been restricted to a binary view that neglects the intersections
of gender with other group memberships. Also neglected are increasing trends
toward gender and sexual fluidity. Future research should expand these themes to
enlarge the understanding of gender in its varied, contemporary manifestations.
Another emerging theme is that the Big Tiwo sometimes decompose into three
or four components. For example, agency sometimes has two components, asser-
tiyeness and competence, and communion also can have two componenls, warmth/
sociability and moralily (see Abele et a1.,201,6). The assertiveness/competence dif-
ferentiation is important to gender stereotypes because, as we have suggested,
contemporary stereotypes portray wonen as less assertive than men but not neces-
sarily less competent.
In conclusion, psychologists have made remarkable progress in understanding
the phenomena of gender. Nevertheless, in addition to remedying deficits we
noted in cuitural breadth, intersectionality, and subcomponents of agency and
communion, psychologists of gender should reach beyond discipiinary bound-
aries to take into account the important research conducted by sociologists and
112 Sabine Sczesny et al
economists as well as by neuroscientists and other biologically-oriented research-
ers. Current knowledge, enhanced by the new directions that we recommend,
should favor the development of policies and interventions that advance equal
opportunities for women and men.
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