Women Now Seen as Equally Competent to Men

September 24, 2019

In the current cultural moment, it can be hard not to despair over the intractability of sexism. But a little historical perspective might give us reason for hope.

A recent American Psychological Association meta-analysis of public opinion polls shows a dramatic shift since the 1940s in beliefs about women’s attributes. Gender stereotypes, the researchers conclude, are not fixed but actually morph over time as roles in society change.

For example, in one 1946 survey, only 35% of those polled thought men and women were equally intelligent, and those who believed there was a difference said men were more competent. By the time a similar poll was conducted in 2018, 86% said men and women were equally intelligent, 9% said women were more intelligent and only 5% said men were more intelligent.

(The study produced less heartening data around traits like compassion and agency, which have not changed much. Women are still seen as more compassionate and sensitive, while people believe that men are more ambitious. But let’s focus on the positive!)

This major change in perspective throws cold water on the idea that people’s minds don’t change. Over the decades, the growing visibility of women in positions of leadership across all industries has made a huge impact on the average person’s conception of what’s possible. But the pioneering women didn’t wait for the public to believe in their competence before taking on these roles. They used all the tools available to them — from individual grit to public policy and everything in between — to gain access to positions that had been held solely by men. And their efforts opened the doors to the women who followed.

What does this have to do with law firm communications? If you asked most people what they think a lawyer looks like, they would probably still say a white man. Most firms claim to envision a diverse and inclusive partnership class as their future, but the makeup of their present leadership is overwhelmingly male and white. As this APA study shows, representation is a central driver of increased diversity.

In other words, the way to become more diverse is by . . . becoming more diverse. Elevate women and people of color to positions of power, and you will change perceptions of who belongs in those roles.

​Strategic communication, especially robust marketing and PR support efforts, reinforces the work your firm is already doing around diversity, and sets the stage for further growth. Putting forward women and attorneys of color for award nominations and as thought leaders in their fields helps build their profiles and enhance the overall brand of your firm. These efforts ​create a virtuous cycle as more diverse candidates, recruits and young associates aspire to be what they see.