Gender stereotypes often rely on the ways people define themselves. In this lesson, we'll look at two ways of defining oneself. We'll also study why gender differences exist and how they change over time.
Agency vs. Communion
How do you define yourself? Are you more focused on the things that you do as an individual or on the relationships you have with other people? Are you independent, or do you prefer to associate yourself with others? In psychology, agency is the tendency to define yourself by what makes you an individual. People high in agency are focused on their individual accomplishments and what separates them from others.
Women have a tendency toward communion, while men have a tendency toward agency.
In contrast, communion is the tendency to focus on other people and your relationship to them. People who are high in communion are focused on the groups they belong to and their relationships to others. One interesting thing that has been found in psychology is the existence of gender differences in agency and communion. As might be expected by gender stereotypes, men have more of a tendency towards agency and women towards communion.
Note that these are generalities and stereotypes. So, while there is a difference in the genders, it is not absolute; there are some women who value agency and some men who value communion.
Social Role Theory
Why is there a difference in genders when it comes to agency and communion? It could be because for years, men have been defined by what they do out in the workforce, where they must distinguish themselves from other workers. In contrast, women have been defined by what they do in the home, where their relationships with family and community members are necessary for success.
Because success has been defined differently for men and women, social expectations are handed down from generation to generation. As a result, men are taught to value agency more and women are taught to value communion more.
Social role theory says that the historical division of labor for men and women has caused men to be more agency-focused and women to be more communion-focused. In short, this theory explains why men focus more on what makes them individual and separate from others, and women focus on relationships and what they have in common with others.
The historical division of labor has led men to be more agency-focused.
In order to test social role theory, psychologists Amanda B. Diekman and Alice H. Eagly set up a series of experiments starting in the late 1990s and continuing through the current day. Their studies looked at how men and women from the past and present were perceived, specifically in regards to their roles and personality traits.
Diekman and Eagly found two things that support social role theory. First, they discovered that people perceived sex differences to be wearing away. That is, the participants believed that people from the past were more stereotypical than people from the present. When asked whether a man would tend more towards agency or communion, most people said that men of the past were more likely to be agency-defined. Likewise, they said that women of the past were more likely to lean towards communion than agency.
This makes sense in the context of social role theory. If stereotypes about men and women are based on the division of labor, then as the world changes and women work more outside the home, those stereotypes should begin to erode. That's exactly what Diekman and Eagly found happening.
The other thing that Diekman and Eagly found to support social role theory was that stereotypes of women were changing more than those of men. In other words, the idea that women are only focused on relationships and how they deal with others was seen as more outdated than the idea that men are agency-focused.
Stereotypes of women have changed more than those of men.
Again, this supports social role theory because women's roles in society have changed much more than men's over the past 50 years. As women's roles change, so do the stereotypes associated with them. In short, what Diekman and Eagly found was that women's tendency towards communion and men's tendency towards agency are based on societal expectations.
Agency is the tendency to define oneself according to individual accomplishments, as opposed to communion, which is the tendency to define oneself according to relationships. Social role theory states that women are more likely to be communion-focused, and men are more likely to be agency-focused because of the historical division of labor and sex stereotypes. Studies by Diekman and Eagly support social role theory by showing that as gender roles change, so do gender stereotypes.
After this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Discuss what is meant in psychology by agency and communion
- Explain why the social role theory attributes gender differences in agency and communion to the historical division of labor
- Summarize Diekman and Eagly's research on social role theory and gender stereotypes