Young women these days are encouraged to lean in, to want and have it all. And national polls show the idea that a woman’s place is in the home has been losing traction among young people since the 1960s.
Given the option, the majority of young men and women say they would prefer to share both work and domestic duties equally with their spouses, according to a study published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review.
So how come women are still under more pressure to leave work or switch to part time when they have kids, and still do more of the housework?
“Our work shows that most people want to have more egalitarian relationships, says Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored the study. “But they may fall back on to traditional gender roles when they realize that egalitarianism is hard to achieve in the current workplace environment.”
The researchers began by rounding up 330 unmarried young adults ages 18 to 32 from all over the country. They divided the participants into three groups.
The fist group was asked to choose one of three options: being completely self-reliant regardless of relationship status; being the primary breadwinner in a relationship; or being the primary homemaker. In this group, men and women tended to fall back into more traditional gender roles.
The researchers then asked the second group the same question, but added the option of having an egalitarian relationship — and everything changed.
Sixty-two percent of higher-educated women and 59.3 percent of women without a college education said they preferred an egalitarian relationship. Among men, 63 percent of those with some college education, 82.5 percent with less education responded in the same way.
And when the researchers asked the third group to imagine a world in which all workers had access to paid family leave, subsidized childcare and flexible work schedules, even more men and women said they wanted egalitarian relationships.
The results show that people’s current attitudes toward gender roles are likely a result of restrictive workplace policies, Thébaud says.
“The assumption is that you have backup support — a stay-at-home person who is helping you take care of the children,” Thébaud says.
Raising children when both parents work full time at demanding jobs is very difficult, Thébaud says, which may be why women are more apt to leave work or work part time.
But this research also suggests that as workplace policies change, people’s attitudes toward gender roles will shift as well, says Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Even what we think we want is going to be based on what kinds of options our environment offers us,” Gerson says. “Right now, it’s very hard in many cases for Americans to even imagine what life would be like if they could depend on the kinds of family and work support that is available in some other countries.”