By Molly Monahan Lang
Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology
Social Work, and Criminal Justice
and Barbara J. Risman
Professor and Head of Sociology
University of Illinois at Chicago
In 1960, only 40 percent of women aged 25-54 years old were in the labor force. By 2000, 70 percent of women that age were employed. For married women with children aged six through seventeen, employment rates grew from 40 percent in 1960 to a peak of almost 80 percent by the new millennium. Sixty percent of married women with children under school age now work for pay, compared to less than 20 percent in 1960. Mothers are still more likely than fathers to work part-time, but they are less likely to do so than they were in the past. Wives work for pay eighty percent of the hours their husbands work for pay, a huge increase since the 1960s.
During the same period, men’s rates of labor force participation showed a downward trend, from just above 90 percent in 1970 to just above 80 percent in 2005. The combination of a general upward trend in women’s employment and a downward trend in men’s has led toward a convergence in labor force participation.
Between 2000 and 2004 there was a small dip in women’s employment rates, which fell from just above 70 percent in 2000 to just below 70 percent in 2004. But, as economist Heather Boushey points out, the rate of employment fell for all workers between 2000 and 2004 – not just mothers, but also childless women, fathers, and childless men. This was due more to the weak economy than to mothers’ opting out of employment.
Men’s Participation in Housework and Child Care
Despite the sometimes gloomy newspaper articles about men’s resistance to sharing household chores, research on families shows that, over time, each generation of men has taken on a greater share of the work involved in running a home. While men’s family work has not changed nearly as much as has women’s labor force participation, there is clear evidence that married men are more involved in child care and housework than in past eras.
Significantly, younger fathers spend more time with their children than older fathers do. When the Families & Work Institute compared the work-day hours Gen-X and Boomer fathers spend caring for and doing things with their children in 2002, they found that Gen-X fathers spend more than an additional hour every day than did Baby Boom generation dads. After controlling for the possible effect of the children’s age, the same difference remained. The Baby Boom generation of men was the first that had to deal with a new kind of family life, where women demanded more equality at home and at work. Generation X men may not talk as much about changing family roles as the Baby Boomers, but in practice they are breaking new ground in co-parenting their children.
In housework as well as childcare, the tendency has been toward convergence, despite some holdovers from the past. Research by Robinson and Godbey shows that men spent more than 4 hours per week longer each week doing housework and child care in 1985 than they did in 1965. During the same period, women decreased their time doing such work by over 9 hours per week. Some people have claimed the revolution in gender behavior “stalled” in the 1980s. But Between 1985 and 2000, fathers continued to increase their time doing housework and childcare, while mothers’ time doing housework continued to decrease. Women still do more household labor than men, but they have been doing less every generation and every decade. In addition, men are much more likely than in the past to tell pollsters that they desire fewer hours in the labor force and more time for their family.
Some behaviors among the young have also prompted speculation about a resurgence of “traditional” values. Since the beginning of the 1990s, for example, all the social problems related to teen sexuality have plummeted. Rates of teen-pregnancy and STD’s have fallen. Age of first intercourse has actually risen. Some have interpreted this as an indication of return to traditional sexual mores among today’s people. But a closer look reveals a different interpretation. Research by Risman and Schwartz indicates that it is actually young men who have increased their age at first intercourse. In the early sexual revolution, high school girls became more like boys, as premarital sex became more common at younger ages. In the 1990’s, boys and girls became even more alike, but it was boys that were changing to behave somewhat more like girls. Risman and Schwartz suggest that as girls became more sexually active, boys have become more likely to begin their sexual lives with a girlfriend, rather than a young woman they perceive to be a “bad girl,” good only for a one-night stand. Relationship sex is more likely to be safe sex, and this change may help account for the decrease in STD’s and premarital pregnancy.
Attitudes toward Equality
It is not just behaviors but also women’s and men’s attitudes that are changing. Women consistently hold more egalitarian attitudes than do men, but the general trend has been upwards for both sexes. Research shows that since the 1970s Americans have become increasingly more accepting of women contributing to family decisions, holding a job, and sharing the care-taking of children with others. According to General Social Survey data, Americans’ gender attitudes became steadily more egalitarian from the late 1970s to 1995.
From 1998 to 2002 there was a dip in egalitarianism, but it has resumed its upward march since then, especially in people’s support for mothers’ employment and men’s sharing of housework. This return to a rise of egalitarian attitudes in the early 21st century makes us skeptical of arguments that women are somehow becoming more “traditional,” especially since young people continue to hold more egalitarian attitudes than older people, including Baby Boomers.
A disproportionate amount of attention has been given to a few pieces of data suggesting that women are abandoning the effort for equality. As we show here, the bulk of the evidence shows a decades-long trend of convergence between women and men in their behaviors, and in their gender attitudes. Yes, men and women continue to exhibit some differences in these respects. And among low-income groups, where economic stress and job insecurity make family life less stable, there are fewer signs of convergence. Unemployed single men, in particular, have been less likely to adopt egalitarian attitudes or to be involved in caregiving work. Without success at breadwinning, they are less likely to marry or cohabit over long periods of time, and without stable partnerships with women, much less likely to share childrearing. Overall, however, the trend is toward greater convergence in men’s and women’s values and behavior, in and out of the home.
Is this good for families? We think so. The children of employed parents have more time with their parents than did the average child 25 years ago. Among married couples with children, mothers are spending the same amount of time doing things with and taking care of their children on days when they are working today as they did 25 years ago, more than three hours a day — despite the increase in their paid work hours. Meanwhile, fathers’ time with children has increased dramatically, from under two hours to nearly three. Women’s sustained levels of attention to their children, when complemented by the growing amount of time spent by spouses or partners, means that children in families headed by two parents are actually receiving more combined attention from their parents today than children did 25 years ago — 6 hours per weekday in 2002 versus 5 hours in 1977.
As researchers and practitioners, members of the Council on Contemporary Families are sensitive to variations and differences in people’s attitudes and behaviors. Many more women than men continue to take time from paid work to raise children, and a significant minority of men and women continue to believe that it is natural for men to specialize in breadwinning and women to specialize in homemaking. But a long-range perspective shows that American women continue to show an interest in having greater autonomy in their lives, while men are increasingly interested in taking on tasks historically seen as “women’s work,” such as spending time with their children. The data show that the trend toward gender convergence is real, and it is not going to go away. America’s economic and political institutions, along with our research agendas and practical interventions with families, all need to reflect this. It would be a disservice to the families we study and with whom we work to continue to operate on the misguided assumption that there will be any revival of the 1950s male breadwinner family, or that such a revival is desired by most American men and women.
For Further Information
On how international and national trends in marriage, divorce, and cohabitation reflect an on-going transformation of women’s roles, contact Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College: firstname.lastname@example.org, 360.556.9223.
On the changing contributions of men to family work, contact Scott Coltrane, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of California, Riverside: email@example.com, 951.827.3501.
On changing domestic gender relations, including the division of household labor and interactions between men and women, contact Oriel Sullivan, Professor of Sociology, Ben Gurion University: Sullivan@bgu.ac.il.
On children’s changing experience of family time, contact Sandra Hofferth, Professor of Family Studies, University of Maryland, College Park: firstname.lastname@example.org, 301.405.8501.
On changes in men’s and women’s sexuality and their roles in contraception, contact Virginia Rutter, Professor of Sociology, Framingham State College: email@example.com, 508.626.4863.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners. Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.
To learn more about other briefing papers and about our annual April conferences, including complimentary press passes for journalists, contact Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research and Public Education, at firstname.lastname@example.org.