A new study published in Sociological Science suggests that the gender revolution is being held back by more than just institutional constraints. An analysis of the changing attitudes of young adults revealed that while younger generations show increasing support for women in the workforce, they still prefer the traditional arrangement of husband at work and wife at home.
While sociology research tends to suggest growing support for gender equality, study authors Brittany N. Dernberger and Joanna R. Pepin say that these studies reveal only one side of the equation. Gender ideals involve ideas about gender in the public sphere (e.g., the workplace) as well as in the private sphere (e.g., the home). And while support for women in the workforce may be growing, there’s evidence to suggest that beliefs about women as homemakers and caregivers remain strong.
In a new study, Dernberger and Pepin wanted to assess young adults’ beliefs about gender equality, making sure to include measures of support for gender equality in both the public and private spheres. To see how support for these attitudes might be changing with new generations, the researchers examined data from a nationally representative survey conducted yearly in the US between 1976 and 2014. The survey was distributed among 12th-graders at 133 high schools across the country.
The researchers specifically focused on the surveys that included questions about work and family arrangements. The students were told to imagine that they were married and had at least one child of preschool age. They were then presented with six different working arrangements and asked to select whether each option was, “not at all acceptable”, “somewhat acceptable”, “acceptable”, or “desirable.”
The six arrangements were: the husband works full-time while the wife stays at home, the wife works full-time while the husband stays at home, both members of the couple work full-time, both members work part-time, the husband works full-time while the wife works part-time, or the wife works full-time while the husband works part-time.
Dernberger and Pepin analyzed the data and mapped out trends in participants’ responses at different years. At every survey, the arrangement that received the most ratings of “desirable” consisted of the man working full-time and the women remaining at home. The arrangement given the most ratings of “acceptable” entailed the husband working full-time and the wife working part-time.
The data revealed an increase in students’ acceptability of mother’s employment over the years. The arrangements involving both genders working equal amounts and the arrangements involving the wife working more than the husband were increasingly deemed acceptable — however, they were still not preferred. The traditional working arrangement of the man at work and the woman at home remained the most “desired”, although its desirability dropped from 44% to 23% from the earliest 1976 survey to the 2014 survey.
“We suggest that gender flexibility, that is, the greater openness to multiple arrangements, is not the same as the desire for men and women’s equal time at work and at home, which is often inferred by measures of accepting mothers’ employment,” Dernberger and Pepin say. The authors reason that previous scholars likely overestimated the progress toward gender egalitarianism, mistaking a growing acceptance of women in the workforce for a sign of gender equality.
The authors conducted a statistical method called a Latent Class Analysis to pinpoint groups of respondents who showed similar patterns of responses. For example, 12% of the sample belonged to the “dual-earner” group — the group most likely to consider the arrangement where both members of the couple work full-time as desirable. Interestingly, the authors note that while this group may seem to support egalitarianism, almost all members of the group rated the arrangement where the woman works full-time and the man is the homemaker as unacceptable — suggesting they were not actually embracing gender equality. Actually, none of the groups showed patterns of responses that were consistent with gender egalitarianism.
While it has been suggested that institutional roadblocks (e.g., workplace policies) are the main factors preventing the new generation from embracing an equal division of labor, Dernberger and Pepin suggest that deep-rooted beliefs about women as homemakers are also playing a role. They maintain that the new generation has veered “from traditionalism to gender flexibility but not gender equality.
The study, “Gender Flexibility, but not Equality: Young Adults’ Division of Labor Preferences”, was authored by Brittany N. Dernberger and Joanna R. Pepin.