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The Council on Contemporary Families releases The Gender Revolution Rebound Symposium as public support for working mothers and dual-earner families is on the rise; new research suggests that in marriages formed since the early 1990s, men and women are much more happy with non-traditional arrangements than in the past.
This good news comes on the heels of a puzzling pause in the movement towards gender equality. For the last several years, researchers have reported on a seeming stall in markers of progress toward gender equality. Women’s labor force participation rose dramatically between 1970 and 1990, but then slowed and actually fell between 2000 and 2010. Convergence in men’s and women’s hourly wages also slowed and then stalled over the same time period, despite women’s continuing educational attainment. The public’s confidence that working women could be good mothers grew rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, but slipped in the 1990s, while support for egalitarian work-family arrangements also dipped during the second half of the 1990s.
In four briefing papers prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, however, researchers suggest that despite setbacks, there has been more motion behind the scenes than previously recognized.
Changes in attitudes
In “Back on Track? The Stall and Rebound in Support for Women’s New Roles in Work and Politics,1977-2012,” David Cotter (Union College) Joan Hermsen (University of Missouri) and Reeve Vanneman (University of Maryland) profile a significant rebound of support for gender equality since 2006. Although the highest support for gender equity is found among millennials, men and women of all ages, liberals as well as conservatives, have rebounded since the dips from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. In fact, conservatives have shown a greater increase in support for gender equity than liberals, even though their total support levels remain lower.
- After slipping from 62 percent to 58 percent between 1994 and 2000, the percentage of people disagreeing that it is better for men to earn the money and women to tend the home rose to an all-time high of 68 percent in 2012.
- Less than a third of Americans now say that a male breadwinner family is the ideal arrangement.
- In 2000, almost half of the public thought that preschool children suffered if their mother worked outside the home, but by 2012, this had dropped to 35 percent, with 65 percent of Americans rejecting this idea.
- The percentage of respondents agreeing that a working mother can establish as warm a relationship with her children as a homemaker had dropped to 60 percent by 2000 (the same as it had been in 1985) but by 2012 it was back up to 72 percent.
- And the percentage of respondents saying that men and women are equally suited to politics had grown to 76 percent by 2012, following a decline between 1993 and 2004 from 75 to 69 percent.
Historian Stephanie Coontz, CCF co-chair and Gender Revolution Rebound Symposium editor, notes “These findings are particularly impressive in light of the severe recession we have been in. The last time we had such severe job losses for men was in the Great Depression, and that led to a huge backlash against working women, whereas since 2006 the recession has if anything increased the respect for female earners.”
Sex is better and divorce less likely for egalitarian couples today
Two other papers, “Is the glass half empty, or three-quarters full?” by Sharon Sassler (Cornell University), and “It’s Not Just Attitudes: Marriage Is Also Becoming More Egalitarian” by Christine Schwartz (University of Wisconsin-Madison), refute the widespread idea that modern men are threatened when they have to share household chores equally or when they are less educated than their partners. This seems to have been true in the past, but is no longer the norm in marriages formed since the early 1990s.
Earlier this year, a much discussed New York Times story, using data collected from people married over twenty years ago, reported that couples who shared household chores equally had less sex than couples who adhered to a traditional division of labor around the house. Many commentators responded by advising men to put down the broom and never touch the iron. But using data from 2006, and confining her analysis to marriages formed after the early 1990s, Sassler reports that heterosexual couples who shared domestic labor had sex at least as often and were at least as sexually satisfied as couples where the woman did the bulk of the housework. The only exception was the tiny number of couples (less than 5 percent) where the man did most of the housework.
Up until the 1980s, reports Schwartz, marriages where the wife had more education than the husband were more likely to end in divorce than marriages where the husband’s education was the same or higher. Today, however, couples in which the wife has more education than her husband have no added risk of divorce, and couples in which husbands have more education than their wives may now be more likely to divorce than couples with the same education, suggesting that older hierarchical gender patterns may now be a threat to many marriages.
Schwartz reminds us, though, that the gender wage gap persists—so that women’s advantage in education isn’t the same thing as women’s advantage in overall earnings. The jury still is out as to whether that remains a risk for contemporary marriages.
What comes next? The sneaky dilemma of overwork and gender inequality
While the median hourly wages of women 35 and under are now 93 percent of their male counterparts, the pay gap among men and women older than 35–those most likely to be married and to have children – remains large. In “Overwork may explain 10 percent of men’s wage advantage over women” Youngjoo Cha (Indiana University) makes the case that one reason for this is accelerating wage inequality that now fuels working long hours. “Overwork” (the practice of putting in 50 or more hours a week) is increasingly prevalent, especially among managers and professionals, and so is the trend toward rewarding such workers disproportionately, which began in the mid-1990s. Overwork is especially difficult for women, who still bear the main responsibility for family life in most cases, so when workers who hew to a traditional work week are penalized in their hourly wages, women are more likely to lose out. In fact, Cha argues, the overwork effect accounts for 10 percent of the gender wage gap, offsetting the equalizing effect of women’s educational gains since the early 1990s. One implication of her argument, notes Coontz, is that “If employers continue to penalize workers who do not place work above family life, public support for combining work and family might once again fall.”
Links and Contacts
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Miami, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Co-Chair and Director of Research and Public Education, at firstname.lastname@example.org, cell 360-556-9223.
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