After years of no change in how Americans view men and women's roles at home and at work, the culture seems to be shifting toward more egalitarian views, new research finds.
Since 2006, men and women have become more accepting of women working outside the home and participating in politics, researchers reported July 30 in a new report from the Council on Contemporary Families. After years of growing acceptance of women in these roles since the 1970s, this trend had stalled since the mid-1990s, said study leader David Cotter, a sociologist at Union College in New York.
"The stalling persisted both through boom times and bust times," Cotter told Live Science. [Busted! 6 Gender Myths in the Bedroom and Beyond]
The lack of economic link to the attitude changes (or lack thereof) makes the reasons for the stall a bit of a mystery. The women's movement and demographic changes such as increased education can explain why Americans became increasingly accepting of women outside the home since the late 1970s, Cotter said.
"It's a little bit more of a mystery as to why there would have been a turn toward those traditional gender role attitudes in the 1990s," he said.
The research comes from the General Social Survey, a questionnaire that includes questions about ideal roles for men and women. One item asks if the respondent agrees, "It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family." Other questions ask if working mothers are bad for children or if women are suited to jobs in politics.
In 1977, 66 percent of Americans thought men should work while women stayed home. The rest disagreed or weren't sure. By 1994, only about 33 percent of Americans believed that a male breadwinner was the ideal. Similarly, 68 percent of Americans said a mother working outside the home harmed her children in 1977, a belief that only about 30 percent held in 1994.
The march toward egalitarianism began to falter after that year, however. In 1994, 63 percent of Americans were accepting of other arrangements beyond the male-breadwinner, female-housewife model. In 2000, only 58 percent of Americans were willing to say that nontraditional arrangements were as good as this traditional model.
In 1994, 57 percent of people said that a woman working outside the home would not harm preschool-age children. That number slipped to 51 percent by 2000. Other questions about gender roles revealed similar trends toward traditionalism.
Attitudes and reality
If gender beliefs fall on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being perfect egalitarianism, Americans earned a composite score of 1.5 in 1977, Cotter said. By the mid-1990s, attitudes were a point higher, reaching 2.5. The score hovered there for a decade, only recently moving on up to a 3.0, Cotter said. [8 Supreme Court Decisions that Changed US Families]
"Of all the changes taking place in those attitudes since 1977, two-thirds of it took place in the first third of the period, none of it in the middle third, and then one-third of it here at the end," he said.
The 1990s stall may have come at a time when the woman's movement suffered from exhaustion and disorganization at the end of the 1980s, Cotter said, or it could have been a cultural backlash to feminism. Another possibility is that the shift had to do with parenting: Culturally, American parenting has become more intensive and time-consuming, and Americans and believe that mothers, in particular, should be available to their children constantly, Cotter said.
As of 2012, less than one-third of Americans believe the ideal family is one in which the husband works and the wife stays home, and 65 percent disagree that a working mother's young children suffer. And 76 percent say men and women are equally suited to a life in politics.
"Ideas about what family and what gender roles should look like are really sort of basic essential questions we face about how we ought to organize our individual lives and our societies," Cotter said. "They get down to some very deeply held values and beliefs within a society."
Whether these attitude shifts will change the lives of men and women remains an open question, however.
In another study released by the Council on Contemporary Families, Indiana University, Bloomington, sociologist Youngjoo Cha and colleagues found that men are more likely than women to work more than 50 hours a week, a phenomenon the researchers call "overwork." (Women remain more burdened than men with household chores, perhaps indicating some traditional gender holdovers in behavior.)
As of 2007, 17 percent of men worked more than 50 hours a week, compared with 7 percent of women, Cha and her colleagues reported. Though salaried workers aren't paid overtime, people with longer days do tend to be paid more and are viewed as more committed to the job. Women's household and child care duties are more likely to prevent them from taking on these commitments, the researchers suggest.
If there were no overwork gap, the researchers concluded, the wage gap between men and women would be about 10 percent smaller than it is today.
"It is encouraging to learn that approval of more egalitarian work and family arrangements has been growing again and is especially strong among millennials," Cha wrote, referring to Cotter's work. "But in order to turn this ideological progress to a reduction in structural inequalities such as the gender gap in pay, employers and policy-makers need to recognize that the majority of workers have children, older parents, and/or working spouses and to set a more realistic standard for what constitutes a 'good worker.'"