True gender equality may be a work in progress, but since the Women’s Liberation Movement beginning in the 1950s and 60s, there has been a lot of positive change, at least in most industrialised nations: a shift towards women having more control over whether and when to have children, for example, and increased opportunities in education and careers, and less tolerance of sexism (though of course it hasn’t gone away). How might these cultural and social changes have influenced women, in terms of how much they act in stereotypically “feminine” ways?
A new study by Constance Jones and her colleagues at California State and San Francisco State Universities in the Journal of Adult Development tried to find out by comparing two cohorts of women, one born in the 1920s and the other featuring “Baby Boomers” born in the 1950s. The findings support past work that’s shown how women tend to change through their lives, and they provide evidence for a generation effect: over time, at least in California, women seem to be becoming less stereotypically feminine – that is, less deferential, and more confident and ambitious.
The 180 women born in the 1920s took the same California Psychological Inventory five times over as many decades, beginning when they were in their 30s and through into their 80s. The researchers were particularly interested in how they scored on the 32 items of the Inventory that measure femininity defined “as being gentle and warm, but also being dependent, and needing reassurance from others”, and how they scored on the 36 items measuring dominance, defined as “being confident, ambitious, assertive, and enterprising”.
Meanwhile, 190 women born in the 1950s (actually daughters of the older participants) answered the same questions about their own femininity and dominance, first in 1980s when they were in their 30s, then twice more in their 40s and 50s/60s (taking us up to 2006).
Jones and her team found evidence of lifespan changes in both cohorts. Women in both groups tended to become less stereotypically feminine as they got older (with some return to more femininity later in life) and both groups showed signs of greater dominance with increasing age. Statistically speaking, the magnitude of change was modest in effect size. “[The] women appeared to drop constraining negative aspects of the feminine gender role and take on positive cross-gendered qualities with age,” the researchers said.
Comparing across the two cohorts, the women born in the second half of the twentieth century scored lower on femininity when they first completed the inventory in their 30s as compared with the femininity scores of the women born in the 1920s when they were the same age (a modest group difference in terms of effect size). “Most likely reacting to the Women’s Movement zeitgeist, [the younger cohort] entered young adulthood with less obligation to take on feminine gender constraints in the first place,” the researchers said.
Moreover, the rate of increase in dominance shown by the second generation women through their lives was more rapid than that shown by their mothers. Because of this difference in speed of change, the researchers said “we can expect the younger cohort women to be higher than the older cohort women in dominance when they reach later adulthood.”
It would be fascinating to see if and how these trends have continued in Generation X and Millenials. If you reflect on your own family – for example, how you or your sisters compare in femininity and dominance (as defined in this study) with your mother – bear in mind the implications of the parallel changes in these traits through lives and across generations. A young woman today might not seem a lot more dominant and less feminine than her mother is today, but that might be because of the way her mother has changed through her life. The chances are that the young woman is more dominant and less feminine than her mother was at the same age.
The study has some issues, including a reliance on how participants rated themselves and missing data from some of the survey points, which meant the researchers sometimes had to extrapolate from the scores they did have. Also both cohort samples were fairly small, and perhaps the observed generational changes are unique to the Bay Area of California. That said, Jones and her team pointed out that it was “rare to be able to examine personality change across such as expansive portion of the lifespan (age 20s through the 80s) and to be able to tie two historically important cohorts together.”
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