Alice Eagly: An Impressive Legacy
“Okay, so that’s our world,” said Alice Eagly, The Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) 2018 Annual Convention Legacy honoree, as she explained the broad differences in the division of labor across men and women that persist to this day. Eagly is perhaps best known for her work on how gender stereotypes emerge from the social roles men and women adopt. As Eagly explained, we learn about men and women from how labor is divided. The Eagly Legacy Symposium, which celebrated Eagly’s decades-long career and contributions, as well as her former students’ research, demonstrated the cultural impact of Eagly’s work.
In Eagly’s now classic work on gender stereotypes, she found that men are traditionally seen as more agentic (i.e. daring, adventurous) and women are seen as more communal (i.e. affectionate, gentle). In some of her more recent work, Eagly has been examining how gender stereotypes have changed over time, looking at national poll data regarding gender stereotypes from 1946 to the present day. She has found that, though men are still seen as more agentic than women, women are now seen as both more competent and more intelligent than men, but the stereotype of women as communal has actually increased in recent decades. Eagly explained that this stereotype increase occurs because “we have twice the evidence now: women are communal at home and communal in the workplace”.
Eagly stressed that changing our stereotypes of men and women may be more challenging than simply intervening at the individual level. Since we see our stereotypes manifested in the division of labor across men and women, our stereotypes persist. To change our stereotypes, Eagly explains, we need to change our observations, which will require organizational and societal change: “stereotypes can’t change by themselves; they are anchored in every-day life.”.
Anne Koenig, one of Eagly’s former students, has continued the Eagly legacy with her research on how Social Role Theory can apply to social groups other than gender. Her research has found similar findings: that groups stereotyped as communal are associated with communal roles and groups stereotyped as agentic are associated with agentic roles. Koenig also demonstrated the robustness of social roles, finding that even when contradicting information about group status or inter-dependence was present, social roles always seemed to impact stereotypes.
Eagly’s legacy has also had profound impact on her former student, Amanda Diekman, who studies how motivational orientations are impacted by gender, which can lead to differential representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. “The words your advisor says echo in your mind for decades,” Diekman stated in relation to her data-driven approach to gender research. Diekman’s research focuses on motivational orientations and “affordances”: different roles are seen as affording different goals – such as communal or agentic goals. As Diekman explained, we gravitate toward the fields that afford our goals.
STEM professions are seen as affording only agentic (and not communal) goals. Diekman has found that when the same job and tasks are framed as communal vs. independent, there are profound effects on women’s interest in those jobs. When highly technical or analytic tasks are merely framed through a communal lens, women show much more interest in these jobs.
Evidently, Eagly’s work has had a tremendous impact on, not only our understanding of gender and socials roles, but the careers of many women who have followed in her footsteps. As Diekman concluded, “that is the legacy of Alice Eagly: not just looking back at everything she has accomplished, but looking at how we can move forward.”