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Americans Value Equality at Work More Than Equality at Home

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Americans have grown increasingly likely to believe that women and men should have equal roles at work, in politics and at home. But a significant share still say that men’s and women’s roles should be different at home — even when they believe they should be equal at work.

A new study, based on national survey data from 1977 to 2016, helps explain why the path to equality seems in some ways to have stalled — despite the significant increases in women’s educational and professional opportunities during that period.

Two-thirds of Americans and three-quarters of millennials say they believe that men and women should be equal in both the public sphere of work and the private sphere of home. Only a small share of people, young or old, still say that men and women should be unequal in both spheres — 5 percent of millennials and 7 percent of those born from 1946 to 1980.

But the study revealed that roughly a quarter of people’s views about gender equality are more complicated, and differ regarding work and home. Most of them say that while women should have the same opportunities as men to work or participate in politics, they should do more homemaking and child-rearing, found the study, which is set to be published in the journal Gender and Society.

“You can believe men and women have truly different natural tendencies and skills, that women are better nurturers and caretakers, and still believe women should have equal rights in the labor force,” said Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an author of the paper along with William Scarborough, a sociology doctoral candidate there and Ray Sin, a behavioral scientist at Morningstar.

Women; people with college degrees; African-Americans; and people who lived in the Northeast were most likely to believe in gender equality regardless of setting.

The study used data from the General Social Survey by NORC, a research group at the University of Chicago. It’s a large and continuing representative survey of Americans, and the study analyzed responses from 27,000 people over four decades (including 2,000 in the most recent year, 2016). The questions included whether it is better when a man is a breadwinner and a woman takes care of the home and family; whether children suffer when mothers work; and whether men are better suited for politics than women.

Americans have grown more egalitarian over the last four decades, the study found, and people in each generation also seem to become more egalitarian over time.

“The biggest thing that characterizes millennials is they’re much more likely than other generations to feel that women and men should have equal opportunity in the work force and equal gender roles in the family,” Mr. Scarborough said.

There is not much difference in gender role attitudes among baby boomers and Generation X. (People born before 1946 are most traditional: Forty-eight percent believe in egalitarianism.)

Yet some researchers were surprised that millennials weren’t more egalitarian. Other recent research has found that young people are falling back on traditional gender roles more than expected. Even millennials who want to share earning and domestic responsibilities equally with their partners end up dividing labor more traditionally after they have children. The share of women working has leveled off, and the gender pay gap has not shrunk significantly.

Researchers said one big reason is that workplace and government policies are still set up for a time when men were breadwinners and women stayed at home. Paid family leave, subsidized child care and flexible schedules are not widespread.

In a study of the relative happiness of people with children versus those without, American parents stood out among the 22 English-speaking and European countries surveyed as the most unhappy when compared with nonparents. The researchers found that it was entirely explained by the absence of family-friendly policies in the United States. In countries that had such policies, there was no happiness gap between parents and nonparents.

“Their attitudes aren’t stalled, but what might be stalled is the ability to live one’s values,” Ms. Risman said of millennials. “As workplaces become more demanding, I think it’s harder to be the parent of a young child and a full-time worker now than 30 years ago.”

While women are doing more paid work, men aren’t doing that much more domestic work. In the new study, one-fifth of men born between 1946 and 1980 said women should be more equal at work than at home — which for the men would mean benefiting from a second household income without doing any extra chores.

“At home, men are more resistant to that change because it really means surrendering privilege,” said David A. Cotter, a sociology professor at Union College who has studied gender attitudes. “This way, they don’t have to do more laundry.”

The data revealed another twist about young people’s attitudes. By a slight margin, millennials said that women were more equal at home than at work, the only generation to express that view.

The difference between the groups is small, so the researchers cautioned against concluding too much from it. One reason for some millennials’ belief that workplace equality isn’t as high as in the home, Mr. Scarborough said, might be that many started their careers during the recession and its aftermath. When there is high unemployment, people tend to revert to believing that men should be breadwinners.

Another reason, Ms. Risman said, is that young women were raised to believe they could achieve anything they wanted at school and work — and faced a rude awakening when they entered the professional world and found that sexism and harassment were still rampant.

“This generation pushing back in this MeToo movement is a generation raised expecting they would excel in school, get their law degree, and the doors would open right up for them,” she said. “And then what they found is the men they were working with still treated them in ways that were impossible to live with.”


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