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Mindsets Matter: Understanding When Attitudes Predict Gender Bias

December 30, 2013

By Crystal Hoyt and Jeni Burnette (University of Richmond)

The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.

~John F. Kennedy~

US President John F. Kennedy, in his 1962 State of the Union address, claimed he was certain about uncertainty: that “the one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.” Do you agree with him?  And, more specifically, do you believe that this perspective even applies to human nature?  In social psychological terms, do you have a growth mindset of people, believing in the malleable nature of human attributes? Or, do you believe that people are what they are–that change is the exception, and sameness the rule. Do you adopt a fixed mindset?

The answers to these questions are consequential, for research demonstrates that mindsets matter for a host of important outcomes ranging from self-regulation to forgiveness to discrimination (Burnette, O’Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013). For example, in our research recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Hoyt & Burnette, 2013), we found that mindsets about the nature of people influence evaluations of women in positions of authority. Although we have witnessed an enormous shift toward accepting women in positions of power and influence in society, women are still perceived as not having what it takes to be an effective leader. The more traditional division of labor where men hold positions of power relative to women has given rise to consensually shared attitudes about what women should or should not do, called gender roles (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Unfortunately, one outcome of these gender roles is that women are often judged as less competent leaders, in part, because of the stereotype that “men should take charge, whereas women should take care.” Individuals who support these status quo traditional gender roles tend to discriminate against women, in, for example, hiring decisions and leader evaluations. In contrast, people who reject traditional gender roles are more likely to show favor towards women leaders.

However, the extent to which people rely on these preexisting gender role attitudes when judging female leaders depends on their mindset. If you have a growth mindset of people (e.g., you believe people can fundamentally change), you are more likely to process the dynamic nature of human behavior and to consider the situational context. In contrast, if you have a fixed mindset of people (e.g., you believe that people do not change), you are more likely to process information in terms of explicit traits such as gender.  In our research, across two studies, we found that traditional attitudes toward women in authority significantly predicted a pro-male gender bias in leader evaluations, and progressive attitudes predicted a pro-female gender bias with an especially strong effect for those with more fixed, relative to growth mindsets about the general nature of people (Hoyt & Burnette, 2013).

A fundamental goal of applied social psychological research is to understand factors that can help to reduce social inequality. Our work sought to understand the factors that reduce biased evaluations of female leaders. History suggests these evaluations are shifting. For example, a recent Gallup Poll (2011) showed that although preferences for working for a male boss (32%) outnumbered those for a female boss (22%), the most popular response was no preference (44%), which is notably less traditional than responses in 1995 (46% preferred a male boss, 19% preferred a female boss, and 33% indicated no preference). The findings from our work offer additional optimism for surmounting traditional attitudes about the role of women in the upper echelons of society. Namely, if we want to reduce bias, we can focus not only on changing attitudes about the role of women, but also changing mindsets.

Author Information

HoytCrystal L. Hoyt is associate professor of leadership studies at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She holds a Ph.D. from University of California, Santa Barbara. As a social psychologist, she brings a psychological perspective to the field of leadership studies. Her research and curricular interests include social behavior, leadership and group dynamics, research methodology in the social sciences, examining the effects of stereotypes and discrimination on women and minority leaders, leader perception, and the role of confidence in shaping group leadership.

BurnettJeni Burnette is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond. Dr. Burnette’s research applies basic social psychological theories to understanding fundamental social issues such as obesity and healthy relationship functioning. She primarily focuses on how mindsets matter for self-regulation and person perception. Her work has been published in journals including Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.


Burnette, J. L., O’Boyle, E., VanEpps,* E. M., Pollack, J. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2013). Mindsets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 655-701. doi: 10.1037/a0029531

Hoyt, C. L., & Burnette, J. L. (2013). Gender bias in leader evaluations: Merging implicit theories and role congruity perspectives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1306-1319. doi: 10.1177/0146167213493643

Eagly, A. H. & Karau, S.J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109, 573-598.  doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.109.3.573

Gallup Poll, August, 2011. Retrieved June 26, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, September, 1995. Retrieved June 26, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Image Credit: Image courtesy of Ambro, image ID: 10046913;

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