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The Status Characteristic of Gender

Sarah Ogilvie

As was noted earlier, gender is considered to operate as a diffuse status characteristic: it has two differentially evaluated states and it generates generalised and specific expectations with respect to competence. The specific expectations, which are based upon culturally shared attitudes, are that men have greater ability in areas such as mathematics and science, while women are more capable in artistic and literary domains (Eagly, 1993). With respect to the generalised expectation, there is considerable evidence to suggest that overall, the male state of the status characteristic is perceived as being more competent than the female state (Foddy & Smithson, 1996; Foschi, 1996; Ridgeway, 1993). This means that when gender is the only salient status characteristic through which differentiation can occur, in a task-related setting, males will engender higher expectations for competency than females.

In conditions where status characteristics in addition to gender are salient and performance on the task is believed to be related to gender, it may be the case that the aggregate of status information results in a reversal of the performance expectations when compared to conditions where gender is operating alone. To illustrate this, consider a task-setting where a woman has attained a higher level of education than a male group member, and further the task involved has been defined to be one in which women perform better than men. In this, the difference in the expectations for performance based on educational achievement and the nature of the task, combine to outweigh the difference implied by gender. In this way, the performance expectations for women can be elevated, relative to male group members. By elevating the performance expectations of women, a higher positioning in the power and prestige order is entailed which in turn results in the adoption of higher status behaviours. It is refreshing to note, that this can occur despite the fact that women commonly enact lower status behaviours as a result of widespread perceptions of their competency relative to men.

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