Seeing is Believing: Exposure to Counterstereotypic Women Leaders and its Effect on the Malleability of Automatic Gender Stereotyping

Women who are exposed to female leaders – in naturally occurring environments or in laboratory settings – exhibit fewer automatic stereotypes about women as a group.


The malleability of attitudes and beliefs has reemerged as an inroad to attaining gender equality in recent decades. Numerous studies have shown that attitudes and beliefs can be influenced by a wide range of factors, including changes in an individual’s social environment. Building on past empirical work, the authors of this paper investigate whether female students’ implicit (unconscious) or explicit (conscious) beliefs about women are influenced by exposure to counter-stereotypical female role models. The authors conducted two studies. In the first, a laboratory experiment, they exposed the test group of women to information about famous female leaders (judges, business leaders, scientists, politicians, etc.), while the control group read about types of flowers. The second experiment, a field study, took advantage of pre-existing differences in the proportion of women occupying leadership positions at a women’s college, which had many women faculty and deans, and a similar coeducational college, which had comparatively fewer women faculty and deans, and measured automatic gender stereotypic responses among students upon entering these institutions and after one year of attendance.


In both studies, the authors found that when women were exposed to female leaders, they were less likely to hold unconscious, stereotypic beliefs about other women.

  • Women who were exposed to women in countersterotypic leadership positions in the laboratory setting were more likely to automatically associate women with leadership qualities than the control group. Exposure to women leaders did not simply reduce stereotypic beliefs among study participants, but rather activated more counterstereotypic beliefs, such as positive beliefs about women as leaders.
  • In the field study, participants’ implicit beliefs were statistically equivalent when they entered college as first-year students at the coeducational college or the women’s college as measured by Implicit Association Test (IAT) scores, but diverged substantially after a year. In their sophomore year, students at the women’s college showed no implicit gender stereotypes on the IAT, whereas their peers at the coeducational college showed substantially stronger stereotypic beliefs. The difference in IAT scores was found to be statistically significantly different (p=0.002)
  • In the field study, the more students at both institutions encountered course instructors who were women, the less gender stereotypes they expressed implicitly. Female students who encountered mostly male faculty showed more gender stereotypes favoring male leaders over female leaders compared to others who encountered more female faculty.
  • The participants’ explicit, conscious beliefs showed no significant changes in either the laboratory or field setting after exposure to female leaders.

In short, being exposed to women in counterstereotypic leadership positions can have a positive influence on women’s implicit beliefs about women.


This paper is based on two studies. In the first, a treatment group was exposed to pictures and biographies of famous women in leadership roles in the laboratory, while a control group was exposed to pictures and descriptions of flowers. The treatment group completed a questionnaire assessing the degree to which they identified with those leaders. All participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their automatic and self-reported beliefs about women. A sample of 72 women from New York City participated in this study.

In the second, the researchers tracked one group of female students attending a women’s college and another group attending a comparable coeducational college. Each participant’s beliefs were assessed at two time periods – at the beginning of their first year in college and during their sophomore year. The researchers also attempted to identify specific features of the college environment that might influence changes in automatic gender stereotypic beliefs. Eighty-two female students from two liberal arts colleges located in the same town participated in the study.

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