When it comes to gender roles and the way families manage the balance between work and raising kids, there is a big difference between what we think is fine for other people and what we would choose for ourselves. This is not to say that we are all hypocrites. Rather, it seems that Americans these days see a wide range of acceptable possibilities for family and work arrangements, but when asked about their own plans, the answers tend to be more traditional.
Brittany Dernberger of the University of Maryland and Joanna Pepin of the University of Texas at Austin have a smart new paper out called “Economic Precarity and the Gender Revolution: Young Adults' Division of Labor in Their Future Families” that tries to make these important distinctions. When people look at the persistent gender gap in, say, corporate leadership positions or the fact that more women than men tend to take time off or switch to part time jobs to raise kids, they are puzzled. If Americans almost universally support women’s workforce participation, then it must be some kind of systemic discrimination that causes these gaps.
The authors looked at data from the Monitoring the Future Survey, given to 16,000 high school seniors annually starting in 1976. They explain: “High school seniors were asked to imagine they were married and had a preschool child before evaluating six work and family arrangements as unacceptable, somewhat acceptable, acceptable, or desirable.” The authors note that “unlike studies largely reliant on perceptions of women’s employment, the Monitoring the Future data allow us to evaluate perceptions of men’s and women’s behavior in both public and private spheres.” The work-family arrangements ranged from men working full time and women not working at all, to women working full time and men not working at with different part time arrangements in the middle.
Though the percentages supporting each changed over time, it remains true today as it did in 1976 that “The conventional arrangement—consisting of a husband-breadwinner and wife-homemaker—remained the most desired arrangement.” The percentage of high schoolers embracing this arrangment went from 48% in 1976 to 20% in 2014. The most “acceptable” arrangement, however, was a husband working full time and a wife working part time (57%). In addition to the 57% who found it acceptable in 2014, an additional 17% rated it the most desirable.
What is going on here?
The authors suggest that the changing attitudes about gender roles and work have less to do with attitudes about gender than practical factors like a family’s economic circumstances and the need in this age of “intensive parenting” to spend considerable time with children to ensure their academic and economic success. Even seniors in high school seem to recognize that there are a lot of factors that go into the choices parents make with regard to work and family, and they are not as “judgmental” as they used to be about these choices—there are many acceptable arrangements. That being said, both male and female respondents seem to still desire an arrangement in which a mother can stay home with young children for more time and men can financially support the family. Many young people seem to recognize that both parenting and work demand a lot of labor—indeed they have been able to witness this demand first hand in their own families—and see a traditional or neotraditional arrangement as most practical.
Dernberger and Pepin write that other scholars have tended to “overestimate[e] egalitarian attitudes by conflating acceptability of mothers’ labor force participation with the embrace of gender egalitarian principles. … Acceptance may be more akin to tolerance, which reflects a basic extension of civility ties to rights-based principles rather than a robust desire for gender equality.” They suggest that “economic precarity may be eliciting greater flexibility in work and caregiving responsibilities” (ya gotta do what ya gotta do) “without undermining conventional attitudes that prioiritize mothers’ time with children over fathers’ time caregiving.”
Perhaps it is also possible that these 17- and 18-year-olds have been less indoctrinated into the view that men and women perform interchangeable functions in society. A few years ago, a survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that the expectations of alumnae for their careers and families did not meet with reality. As the New York Times explained:
Only 17 to 25 percent of women aged 32 to 67 years old expected that their husbands’ careers to take precedence over their own, but they did so 40 percent of the time. Half of the women expected to handle a majority of child care, but almost three-quarters said they ended up doing so.
If you are a woman who has gone to an elite business school, you may be convinced (long before you even start your career) that an equal balance of work and childrearing is possible and even desirable. But things are different when the rubber hits the road.
Some may attribute this gap to economic circumstances. It is hard to have two high-powered careers in one home and still offer the kind of intensive parenting that is expected. But it’s also true that women often feel differently about childrearing once they actually have children. In many ways, the sample of high school students in this study seem like realists. They acknowledge that men and women might not be interchangeable in their roles rearing children, but they also seem to understand that sometimes circumstances beyond our control may require different arrangements. As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans, and God laughs.”