Since the mid-twentieth century, women have entered the labor market in droves and now make up over half of the paid workforce. Still, women do a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare, despite their increasing hours spent in the labor force. Both academic research and public sentiment suggest that most people support gender equality and we just need workplace policies to catch up. But what if workplace policies are not the only barrier to progress?
Our new study in Sociological Science finds that fewer young people desire gender egalitarian arrangements—equal earning and caring roles for men and women—than conventional wisdom presumes. We analyzed almost 40 years of Monitoring the Future data to examine trends in young peoples’ division of labor preferences, an indicator of beliefs about appropriate roles for men and women in both work and family contexts.
Our study differs from prior research by evaluating perceptions of both women and men’s behavior in work and family contexts. Each year, high school seniors were instructed to imagine they were married and have one or more pre-school children. They then evaluated six distinct division of labor arrangements as not at all acceptable, somewhat acceptable, acceptable, or desirable for their future selves. This data enabled us to evaluate whose employment was prioritized, not just tolerated.
As expected, young people have become more open to a wide array of division of labor arrangements. But perhaps surprisingly, a conventional arrangement—consisting of a husband working full-time and the wife staying at home—remained the most desired division of labor scenario among high school students. Only 11 percent of young people desired a dual-earner arrangement, a mainstream measure of gender equity.
The outlook is more dismal when we assessed desires for gender atypical arrangements, those that prioritize mothers’ employment and fathers’ time at home. In 2014, the last year of our survey data, fewer than 5 percent of young people desired scenarios in which the husband does not work or works part-time and the wife works full-time. Over half of the sample reported the wife working full-time while the husband stays at home was not at all acceptable.
Some scholars predicted that the adoption of intensive parenting norms, a time-consuming approach to parenting, may result in a convergence of fathers and mothers unpaid labor. Our findings suggest that any increased expectations for involved fathering may be in addition to expectations of fathers’ earnings, rather than fathers’ time at home replacing some of their time at work.
We argue that greater openness to multiple division of labor arrangements is not the same as desire for men and women’s equal time at work and at home. Our findings show that in addition to inflexible workplaces, belief systems about appropriate divisions of labor may also be maintaining the status quo. We must distinguish gender flexibility from principles of gender equality to truly understand all the barriers to achieving greater equality. We speculate that prior research is likely overstating egalitarian attitudes by conflating acceptability of mothers’ labor force participation with the adoption of gender egalitarian principles.
Increasing acceptance of mothers’ employment may be driven by families needing two incomes, rather than a desire for equal earning and caring practices. As wages have stagnated and economic inequality has increased, families often need both parents in the labor market to make ends meet.
The attitude trends were remarkably similar for men and women and across demographic groups, demonstrating that these beliefs reflect widely held norms. Of the small demographic differences, White youth’s attitudes have changed most over time, becoming more like their Black counterparts. The racialized history of the labor market may have pushed Black youth to adopt flexible division of labor arrangements earlier than their White counterparts. Our results suggest White youth may be increasingly anticipating an insecure and unequal labor market.
What does this mean for public policy that young people are not as supportive of egalitarian division of labor arrangements as anticipated? First, it’s essential to implement family-friendly policies that keep women attached to the labor market. Women’s disproportionate time spent on care work affects their earnings and economic security. Costly childcare and short school days remain barriers to maternal employment. Parental leave, equal pay, and affordable childcare are all important policies that allow workers to balance demands at home and at work.
However, workplace policies that primarily support mothers are not enough to achieve gender equality. Efforts to promote gender equality must address men’s and women’s role at home and at work. Most attention to date has focused on women at work, but policies that promote men doing their share at home must also be implemented. One place to start is by addressing the amount of time employees are expected to spend at work. Conventional gender attitudes are correlated with the rise of men’s overwork. Policies should consider ways to reduce men’s overwork, allowing them to spend more time at home. Enhancing fathers’ time flexibility has benefits that extend beyond how caring and earning labor is divided; it also can improve mothers’ mental health and reduce the risk of postpartum health complications.
For gender egalitarian arrangements to be feasible, advocacy goals must incorporate both men and women, championing policies that explicitly aim to promote gender equality.
Brittany N. Dernberger and Joanna R. Pepin. “Gender Flexibility, But Not Equality: Young Adults’ Division of Labor Preferences” in Sociological Science 2020.
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