A View From Above: How Structural Barriers to Sharing Unpaid Work at Home May Lead to “Egalitarian Essentialism” in Youth
A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Daniel L. Carlson, Assistant Professor of Family, Health, and Policy, University of Utah.
March 31, 2017
Pepin and Cotter make a major contribution to family research by challenging the current practice of treating people’s attitudes about gender as a unitary construct called a “gender ideology.” Instead, they show us that people’s attitudes about gender are multidimensional, complicated, and at times contradictory. Most of us hold multiple gender ideologies or views simultaneously, depending on what aspects of life we are thinking about.
In the process of disentangling people’s attitudes about different gender issues or distinct aspects of changing gender relationships, Pepin and Cotter show us that at least some of the gains made toward gender equality since the 1970s may be under serious threat. On the one hand, support for giving women the same job opportunities as men remains high, and attitudes about the impact of mothers’ labor force participation on their children have continued to liberalize since the 1970s. But among high school seniors — the next generation of parents — support for egalitarian sharing of unpaid household work and decision-making has actually slipped since reaching a high point in 1994.
Pepin and Cotter contend that a new ideology of “egalitarian essentialism” lies behind the revival of support for differentiated gender roles at home, and that these beliefs explain the stalled revolution in gender equality as defined by the lack of gender parity in labor force participation, the persistent gender wage gap, and women’s continued responsibility for childcare and housework in families. They also suggest that such beliefs about gendered family roles at home may be leading many women to internalize the notion that doing the bulk of unpaid work is just and fair, making them unlikely to ask for change. This modernized notion of separate but equal spheres for men and women thus legitimizes and perpetuates an unequal labor burden on women in families, which in turn limits their progress outside the home. Although Pepin and Cotter point to a causal role of attitudes in shaping the social behaviors and structures associated with the stall in the gender revolution, they have trouble explaining why these attitudes have changed.
Cause and consequence. My own work and that of others would suggest that the retreat from egalitarian behaviors and values in many families likely reflects the obstacles couples face in pursuing an egalitarian division of financial and family responsibilities – an arrangement that the majority of U.S. couples state is very important to a successful marriage (Pew 2016) and that researchers find to have increasingly positive consequences for couples’ well-being.
Previous research on adult subjects has shown that people’s attitudes are shaped by their experiences and options. Gender ideologies and choices about gender arrangements in the home are just as much the product of larger structural conditions related to gender inequality as they are the source of those conditions. My work with Jamie Lynch (2013) has demonstrated as much, showing that gender ideologies are both the cause and consequence of the division of housework in marriage. Sharing housework leads to more egalitarian attitudes and vice versa. Additionally, Pedulla and Thébaud (2015) have recently shown just how malleable gender attitudes can be to variations in paid work arrangements and workplace policies. When provided the option of supportive work-family policies, they find that individuals overwhelmingly prefer egalitarian arrangements. But when supportive policies are absent, preferences for egalitarianism decline for most men and women.
Pepin and Cotter acknowledge that adults’ attitudes are shaped over time through their experiences, but they suggest that the attitudes of high school seniors constitute a “unique view from below” — as if these attitudes represent an unadulterated set of beliefs unsullied by the onerous decisions about family leave, childcare, housework, and career investment forced upon adults. Yet, the gender ideologies of youths are forged in interaction with the structural and cultural milieus surrounding them. Children’s gender ideologies are derived from their parents, not just from the messages they are explicitly given but from their own observations of their parents’ experiences (Carlson and Knoester 2011). Pepin and Cotter acknowledge this by pointing out that youths with educated working mothers are more likely to embrace equal family roles at home. They contend that this makes the shift toward conventional attitudes all the more perplexing since demographic shifts toward greater employment, education, and single parenting among mothers’ in the population would suggest more egalitarian beliefs.
It’s the policies. How, then, do we understand the retreat from egalitarian values about domestic roles among youths? Although Pepin and Cotter ask the right questions, they look in the wrong place for the answer. I would argue that two structural factors must be taken into account. First, rising valuation of, and attempts to achieve, egalitarianism from the 1970s to the 1990s were not met with sufficient changes in the workplace or in public policy to accommodate couples’ desires to share family responsibilities. In the face of unresponsive workplaces and role conflict, many adults have likely reverted to conventional gender arrangements and traditional beliefs, transmitting their attitudes to their teenage children. Alternatively, some youths who saw their parents experiencing disagreements and stresses as they tried to integrate work and family without supportive policies may have concluded that a male-breadwinner arrangement would have made family life easier. This could explain Pepin and Cotter’s findings about the more positive views of children of educated working mothers, who generally have better jobs and support systems for family life. But, even so, educated couples often privilege men’s careers, leaving women with incredibly difficult decisions about pursuing careers and raising children (Stone 2007).
A second possible reason for a reversion toward traditional beliefs about family roles and decision-making may lie in the recent increases in counter-conventional family arrangements – arrangements that actually reverse rather than more equally divide traditional household arrangements, with women taking the larger share of breadwinning and men taking on the larger share of homemaking. Indeed, the number of women who earn as much or more than their male partners has increased substantially over the past 30 years (Schwartz and Gonalons-Pons 2016) while the number of stay-at-home fathers has doubled since 1990 (Pew Research 2014).
Some of these role reversals reflect many men’s increasing desire to be more involved at home, but they also reflect real economic stressors for poor and working-class families, resulting from men’s increasingly precarious position in the post-industrial service economy (Pew Research 2014). My research (Carlson, Miller, Sassler, and Hanson 2016) demonstrates that although most couples who adopt a non-traditional egalitarian division of housework find that it enhances marital and sexual satisfaction, most couples who reverse the traditional division of housework find it quite unsatisfactory. When men are primarily responsible for housework, both men and women report the highest feelings of inequity and the greatest dissatisfaction with their housework arrangements. This translates into less sexual intimacy and lower relationship quality. It seems plausible that teens who see their parents or neighbors react negatively to such counter-conventional gendered arrangements may conclude that traditional arrangements with a man as head of the household are “better for everyone involved.”
Looking ahead. Most couples do not appear ready for role reversals, and many have difficulty meeting the increased flexibility demanded of them over the past decade. To the extent that these couples have experienced tension and conflict over these changes, no wonder some children have become less optimistic about the consequences of upending gender conventions than their predecessors in the 1990s.
But this does not mean that the gender revolution has failed or will continue to lose ground. Despite the stall in the gender wage gap and the desegregation of occupations, we have seen a notable leap forward in the ways that egalitarianism benefits people’s personal lives. Indeed, one could argue that the greatest emissary for gender equality is the improvement it leads to in the lives of couples. Unlike the past, today’s egalitarian couples look better on a wide range of indicators than other couples. For example, equally-educated partners now have the lowest odds of divorce, and when a wife has more education than her husband this no longer raises the risk of divorce (Schwartz and Han 2014). Equal-breadwinning couples used to have the highest rates of divorce, but women’s earnings are no longer related to divorce risk (Schwartz and Gonalons-Pons 2016).
Perhaps most important for what more and more children will observe as they grow up, an equal sharing of unpaid labor – both housework and childcare — is increasingly associated with positive advantages for couples’ relationships. In our analysis comparing the association of housework arrangements with mid- to low-income parents’ sense of equity, sexual intimacy, and relationship quality, we found that since the mid-1990s traditional arrangements have increasingly been seen as less fair and egalitarian arrangements increasingly as more fair. Unequal sharing of housework, though initially unrelated to relationship quality, has steadily come to undermine it, while the advantages of conventional arrangements for sexual intimacy have disappeared. In fact, over the time span we observed, sexual frequency declined for all couples except those who shared housework. In addition to the rising benefits of sharing housework, we find also that having partners equally share childcare responsibilities is associated with greater sexual and relationship satisfaction compared to having mothers shoulder the majority of care.
Taken together, it is difficult to reconcile a narrative of a stalled revolution due to a retreat from egalitarian beliefs with our findings that egalitarianism increasingly benefits couples and is seen as the most satisfying and fair arrangement. I suggest that we have seen a polarization in family life that is likely a counterpoint to the polarization in access to good jobs and stable benefits. Relationship stability and quality has been enhanced for the fortunate minority who manage to achieve egalitarian relationships without sacrificing their work or family obligations. But for those who cannot – for the too many who are forced into conventional and counter-conventional arrangements because of financial and time constraints – egalitarian beliefs have been abandoned to defend against cognitive dissonance and the risk of psychological distress. These struggles and reconciled beliefs are then likely transmitted to their kids.
Pepin and Cotter’s important findings call to mind the image of a canary in a coal mine, warning us that if things do not change, the promise of gender equality may suffocate and die. Yet it’s important to remember that there may be light and fresh air at the end of the tunnel. Because youths have increasingly delayed their movement into marriage and parenthood since the 1970s, the attitudes of today’s high school seniors are measured an average of eight to ten years before most will begin family formation (Mathews and Hamilton 2009; Payne 2012). For these youths, several years remain before they will make decisions about how to arrange the paid and unpaid labor in their marital or cohabiting partnerships. Much will likely change, both personally and socially, in the interim.
Still, Pepin and Cotter’s study shows that our current lack of supportive institutions and policies to help families integrate work and family life has begun to take its toll. If something is not done soon to structurally support the egalitarian arrangements that research now shows to be best for most relationships, people may no longer want them to begin with.
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Daniel L. Carlson, Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah, firstname.lastname@example.org.