An Exploratory Study of Sex Roles in Advertising and Women's Perceptions of Managerial Attributes in Women

William F. Kilbourne, Sam Houston State University
ABSTRACT - This exploratory study provides evidence that sex role stereotypes in magazine advertisements do affect women's perceptions of managerial attributes in women. It is further demonstrated, however, that dramatically altering sex roles to improve women's self-image produced a contrast effect lowering rather than elevating the image of women as possessing managerial attributes.
[ to cite ]:
William F. Kilbourne (1984) ,"An Exploratory Study of Sex Roles in Advertising and Women's Perceptions of Managerial Attributes in Women", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 84-87.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 84-87


William F. Kilbourne, Sam Houston State University


This exploratory study provides evidence that sex role stereotypes in magazine advertisements do affect women's perceptions of managerial attributes in women. It is further demonstrated, however, that dramatically altering sex roles to improve women's self-image produced a contrast effect lowering rather than elevating the image of women as possessing managerial attributes.


With the advent of the feminist movement the study of sex roles has increased substantially. Though the exact nature of the development of sex roles in a given society is not known with certainty, it is becoming increasingly evident that the process of socialization plays a dominant role in the development and maintenance of role behaviors (Barry, Bacon, and Child 1957, Block 1973, Rosenberg 1973). As to the nature of the stereotyping process through which sex roles are ascribed, Broverman, Vogel, Broverman, Clarkson and Rosenkrantz (1972) indicate that the characteristics generally attributed to men and to women are not equally favorable. Attributes ascribed to women are viewed less positively than those ascribed to men in American society and these differences tend to be incorporated into the self concepts of both men and women.

Among the attributes that are ascribed differently to men and to women are those associated with success in the business world. This area is particularly important since it is in this area that success, status and reward are most frequently sought in American society. To the extent that women are perceived not to possess attributes considered requisite managerial characteristics, their potential for achieving success in the business world would be diminished. This problem can be manifested in two distinct ways, one pertaining to the views of others regarding women's capabilities, and the other, women's views of their capabilities.

As for the difficulties inherent in the first aspect of the problem, other's view of women's capabilities, research suggests that traditional attitudes towards women have acted as an inhibitor to entry into and advancement within the business world (Orth and Jacobs 1971). Schein (1975) further suggests that the problem is not limited to male perceptions, but includes mid-level female managers as well.

The second aspect of the problem, women's views of women's abilities is the domain of the present study. Here the spectre of the self-fulfilling prophecy looms heavily. If the prevailing stereotype is that women do not possess ' the requisite managerial attributes for success in business, and this attitude is incorporated into the self-image of women, then it is unlikely that they would perceive that a business career is a viable option for self-fulfillment. This process, suggested by Korman (1970) and Schein (1973), would result in fewer women attempting such endeavors and would thereby diminish the chances of disconfirming the stereotype. With little disconfirmation the stereotype would be maintained and the prophecy would be confirmed. Though the existence of these stereotypes has been well established (Rosenkrantz, Vogel, Bee, Broverman, and Broverman, 1968), their source is not as clear.

Cultural norms, socialization and situational factors have been advanced as probable sources of sex role stereotypes (Parson, Frieze and Ruble 1976). In addition such diverse sources as children's stories (Conner and Servin 1978), English usage (Fillmer and Haswell 1977) and the media (Courtney and Lockeretz 1971, Dominick and Rausch 1972, Peevers 1979, Dominick 1979) have all been shown to provide information pertaining to sex roles. However. the present study is concerned only with the media. In particular the study will focus on advertising in the print media.

The prevalence of sex role stereotype usage in advertising has been well documented (Courtney and Lockeretz 1973, McArthur and Resko 1975, Venkatesan and Losco 1975) and the consistent conclusion is that women tend to be portrayed in an unfavorable light. They are frequently characterized as mindless homemakers and very infrequently as responsible, intelligent individuals in professional positions. Though this has been established by the research cited above, little research has been done to determine the effect that such stereotypes have on women's attitudes toward or belief in the degree to which women possess those managerial attributes requisite for success. It has thus far been assumed that the effects of stereotyping have been deleterious and that all that is required is to show that the conditions described exist. A further assumption seems to be that if advertisers discontinue the practice and begin portraying women in their true individual characterizations, that at least this one potential source of sex role socialization will be eliminated. Further, if it could be shown that the reverse was also true, that characterizing women in roles demanding managerial type attributes would elevate the image of women as a social group, then advertising could serve an ameliorative function and hasten the demise of negative sex role stereotypes. It is, however, not the purpose of the present study to suggest what should be done. The purpose is to determine the effect that depicting women in non-traditional sex roles will have on women's perceptions of the degree to which women as a social group possess those attributes considered to be requisite for managerial success.

Current Study

This study investigates the effect that sex role portrayals in magazine advertisements have on women's perceptions of their managerial attributes relative to men's as measured by a four item managerial attributes scale. The independent variable is housewife - professional version of three magazine ads. Since it was recognized that the subjects' responses could be influenced by their existing value set (traditional-non-traditional), a measure of this variable was obtained and used as a blocking variable. The dependent variable was the mean of a four item managerial attributes scale developed for the study.

In generating the specific hypothesis to be tested in the present study two competing theories present themselves as alternatives. Self-fulfilling prophecy theory was employed by Walstedt, Geis and Brown (1980) as an explanation for an increase in women's self-confidence and independence of judgement after exposure to television commercials in which the male and female roles had been reversed. They suggest that women will take cues from the behavior of the individuals in the advertisements and that these cues will effect changes in self-confidence and independence of judgement after exposure to television commercials in which the male and female roles had been reversed. These cues will effect changes in self-confidence and independence of judgement which will manifest themselves in overt behavior. The process of comparative appraisal in which an individual estimates his own standing on an attribute relative to other people would be an analogous interpretation of the phenomenon and an appropriate theory base for the present study. Comparative appraisal may occur even when the overt behavior to which it is attached is not demonstrable. Rather, the beliefs are anchored in groups (Jones and Gerard 1967). Thus, in the present study, a subject viewing the professional version of the ads may elevate her evaluation of women relative to men even though the difference or the belief may never be tested

Competing with the social comparison basis for hypothesis generation is the contrast effect often found in perceptual judgements. The contrast effect in social stimuli has been previously demonstrated (Hovland, Harvey, & Sherif 1957). It was suggested that reversal of expected results is a product of the extremity of the subject's -initial position on an issue. Thus stimuli that appear close to the initial position will tend to be judged closer than they actually are while stimuli that deviate too far from the initial position will be judged to be farther away than they actually are. In terms of the present study, if subjects tend to view the individuals in the advertisements as similar to themselves or their roles, then the results predicted by comparative appraisal should ensue. If, on the other hand, the roles depicted in the advertisements are seen as highly discrepant from their own, a boomerang effect might result in which subject's attitudes would shift in a direction opposite that predicted by comparative appraisal. Which effect occurs will then depend upon the degree to which subjects' anchors for the phenomenon under study differ from the roles portrayed in the treatment.

The purpose of the present study was to determine which of the two effects would occur if advertisers were to respond to criticisms by portraying women in ads in professional as well as the traditional roles. If comparative appraisal is operational under this condition, then a more positive image of women's managerial attributes should prevail. If contrast principles prevail, then a boomerang effect would result and the image of women would be deteriorated rather than enhanced. A third possibility is, of course, that the advertisements would be irrelevant in producing changes in image in which case no significant differences would materialize as a result of the treatment manipulations. The specific null hypothesis to be tested was that the version (housewife-professional) that a respondent saw would not influence her evaluation of managerial attributes in males relative to females.



The subjects were 77 female studies from a large university. They were obtained in a classroom setting from lower division business law classes. The experiment was performed on the first day of class so the subjects had not been exposed to the content of this required class. Students participated on a voluntary basis and did not receive class credit for participation. Four classes were used and the subjects received the assigned treatment in the classroom. The particular treatment to be seen was assigned to each class at random.


A single factor design was used in which the treatments (housewife or professional role ads) were assigned to the groups of subjects. Though some of the participants were males, their results were not analyzed for the present study. Their participation helped disguise the fact that the present study was concerned only with female responses.

In the experiment subjects were required to view three magazine ads and respond to a set of 20 semantic differential items. Eleven of the items pertained to the model in the ad and 9 were directed at the evaluation of the ad itself. After rating each of the three ads, they were required to complete demographic data and a set of 14 Likert type scales. These 14 items contained 6 that related to their perception of male-female managerial attributes, 3 to measure traditionalism and 5 measures of self-concept which were used to help disguise the study's intent. The 5 self-concept items were not used in the present study.

The 11 items used to evaluate the individuals in the ad served a dual purpose. First they were used to increase the salience of the stimuli since it was recognized that scanning three--ads would probably not be a strong enough stimulus to simulate a long period of viewership. The method was similar to that used by Walstedt, Geis and Brown (1980). The second purpose of the evaluation was to provide a manipulation check to determine if the intended image had been projected by the ads. The remaining 9 items were not of direct interest in the present study and served to disguise the intent.


The stimuli used in the experiment were six black and white advertisements which had been reproduced on slides for group presentation. There were two versions (housewife role-professional role) for each of three ads. The products used were a hand calculator, a household cleanser and a boil and bag dinner all using fictitious names to avoid bias resulting from knowledge of brand names. The same female model appeared in both versions of a single ad and a different model was used in each of the three ads.

As a measure of perception of managerial attributes a scale was developed which included items suggested as requisite managerial attributes (Rosen & Jerdee 1978, Schein 1975). Such factors as aggressiveness, rationality, and analytical ability were included as items. Six items were included in the initial scale but the set was reduced to four after the items in the scale were analyzed. The items were analyzed for consistency using item to total correlation. The initial analysis indicated that two of the items were inconsistent with the remaining four. The two were removed and the scale was reanalyzed. The set of four items was considered acceptable for the study (item to total correlation above .68 and cross correlations less than .20). This method of scale construction was similar to that used by Baker and Churchill (1977). The items used in the analysis were "Men are better organizers than women," "Men are more rational than women," 'Men prefer complex tasks more than women do," and "Men have long range goals more than women." These were measured on a S point Likert scale from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." The scale was arranged for the analysis so that a higher score means that men possess the attribute more than women do. The dependent variable used in the analysis was the mean of the four items.

The blocking variable, traditionalism, was measured with a three item scale. Analysis of the three items indicated that all were consistent with intercorrelations above .68 and cross correlations less than .15. The items used were "I tend to be conservative." "Society is changing too fast," and "My views tend to be traditional." These were measured on a 5 point Likert scale as well. To determine the two levels of the variable the sample was split at the mean of the group.


Subjects participated in the experiment in groups. All subjects received the same set of data collection instruments which contained instructions for completing the types of scales used. Four groups were used and each received either the housewife role ads or the professional role ads.

The experimenter instructed the subjects on completing a questionnaire and the order of the events that would follow. They were told that they would be seeing and evaluating three advertisements that were in rough form and that they would be technically refined before publication. They were not to compare one ad to another but were to judge each on its own merits. The experimenter then agreed to answer any questions the subjects might have. After the instructions were read and questions answered, the experimenter proceeded through the experiment.


The dependent variable was analyzed using analysis of variance. The mean of the four managerial attributes items was used as the dependent variable and the mean of the three traditionalism items was used as the blocking variable. For the manipulation check, analysis of variance for repeated measures was used on the managerial attributes terms which were measured on a seven point semantic differential scale. The mean of the items retained after item to total correlations were performed was used as the dependent variable in this analysis. The method used in developing the final scale was again that used by Baker and Churchill (1977). The final scale was composed of six items measuring the respondent's evaluation of the individual in the ad on aggressiveness, preference for complex tasks, leadership, organization, analytical ability and rationality.


Manipulation Check

Analysis of variance with repeated measures (Table 1) was performed to determine if the manipulation of roles was successful in the three ads. The results were significant for the treatment variable while the interaction of treatments and ads was nonsignificant. The difference between the means was in the hypothesized direction with those individuals in the professional roles being evaluated higher on managerial attributes than individuals in the housewife roles. Table 2 presents the means that resulted from the manipulation check.





Dependent Variable

The results of the analysis of variance, presented in Table 3, indicate that both main effects, that for professional vs. housewife roles and that for traditional vs. non-traditional roles were significant at .04 and .01 respectively. The interaction effect did not achieve significance at traditional levels.



In interpreting these results the means, shown in Table 4, indicate that the respondents who were exposed to the professional role ads evaluated males as being more possessed of managerial attributes, as defined in this study, than respondents who were exposed to the housewife role. It should be recalled that the scales were arranged f or the analysis so that a higher score indicates that males exceed females in the possession of the attribute.

The traditionalism variable was also significant with the more traditional group indicating that males were more possessed of managerial attributes than females. Though some questions may arise regarding the operational definition of traditionalism in the present study the results of the analysis indicate that a degree of predictive validity exists since the results were both significant and in the predicted direction.

Though the interaction of the two independent variables was not significant at traditional levels, it is interesting to note the directions of the differences. As can be seen the increase in the evaluation under the non-traditional group was .30 moving from housewife version to professional version. The change was in the same direction but of a greater magnitude, .49, for the traditional group. Thus the changes, though not statistically significant were in a direction consistent with what would be expected given the results of the two main effects. Table 4 presents the cell means for all treatment combinations.




At the outset two different theory bases were proposed as being potentially valuable in the -study of sex roles in advertising and their effect on women's perceptions of women's abilities. Social comparison theories suggest that women might take cues from models in advertising and incorporate them into their evaluation of women as a social group. This could have the effect of elevating the image if the roles portrayed in advertising were altered to include a more professional type from which women might draw such cues. If this were the case then advertisers could perform an ameliorative function in the demise of demeaning female stereotypes.

If, on the other hand, professional role models were perceived as incongruous with women's perception of their social reality or the models represented an element from a "different universe of discourse," then a boomerang effect might be predicted on the basis of contrast principles previously cited.

The results of the present study, though by no means conclusive, tend to support the latter proposition since those respondents who saw the professional role ads evaluated men as being significantly more possessed of managerial attributes, as defined in the present study, than are women. Though the results are consistent with what might be predicted from contrast effects in social judgement, it should be pointed out that they conflict with the results of Walstedt, Geis and Brown (1980) who concluded that role reversal in television ads would result in higher self confidence and independence of judgement in female viewers. This conflict attests to the exploratory nature of the present study.

The exploratory nature should not, however, serve to minimize the results. The results of the present study are internally consistent and further study with larger samples and more refined test instruments will prove useful in developing knowledge of the effects of role portrayal on viewer attitudes.


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