Updated April 3, 2017
Perhaps no one in the US has received more blame for recent setbacks in gender equality than Donald Trump. His derogatory comments about women and his choice of a predominantly male cabinet put women’s hard-earned gains in question.
But new research suggests there may be another force threatening the female future: millennials’ attitudes about women’s roles at home.
In 1994, 42% of American high school seniors (age 18) agreed that the best kind of family was one in which the man was the outside “achiever” and the woman took care of the home. In 2014, 58% said this was true.
That’s according to sociologists Joanna Pepin of the University of Maryland and David Cotter of Union College, who examined almost 40 years of surveys taken by American high-school seniors. They found that millennials (those born between 1982 and the early 2000s), have a surprising set of views on gender.
On the one hand, they found millennials to be progressive when it comes to workplace equity: Like the generation before them, more than 90% believed women should have “exactly” the same opportunities as men in business and politics.
But when it comes to home life, their views were significantly more traditional than previous generations, according to their work for the Council on Contemporary Families.
Separate research looking at the General Social Survey (which has reported on the same questions for 40 years and breaks the answers down by age) bolstered these findings. It found that in 1994, 16% of young American adults (aged 18-25) believed that a woman’s place was in the home. By 2014, that figure had risen to 25%.
The authors warned that the sample size for the yearly data used from the GSS is quite small—about 200 people—so small shifts can appear large.
Cotter said that if the trend continued, the gender revolution—which was already stalling by metrics of of female labor force participation and the pace of closing the gender pay gap —would slow even more dramatically.
“If they persist with these attitudes, they are not likely to be pushing for organizational or societal changes in those family arrangements,” he said.
Based on the survey data, white men were driving the change in social attitudes toward the home. While all groups, including women, showed more support for traditional male-female roles since 1994, black high school seniors and women were more likely than white males to give egalitarian answers.
The change in responses to the General Social Survey was more dramatic: In 1994, 83% of young men rejected the notion that the model family has a male breadwinner. A decade later, that figure dropped to 55%. Female support for the male breadwinner model rose in kind. In 1994, 15% of young women agreed that the male-breadwinner model was superior; by 2014, 28% preferred it.
Pepin and Cotter attribute these attitudes to growing support for so-called “egalitarian essentialism.” By this thinking, women should have equal opportunities at work, and face no discrimination. But they will likely choose different opportunities from men based on their “essential” gender-driven differences.
“Egalitarian essentialism assumes that as long as women are not prevented from choosing high-powered careers, or forced out of them upon entering parenthood, their individual choices are freely made and are probably for the best,” writes Stephanie Coontz, head of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.
This breaks from the “separate spheres” view of gender roles typical of the 1970s, in which women were assigned to the home and men to the workplace. But Cotter says the new stance is risky, because it implies that women are best suited to a certain set of careers. That could limit women’s career choices and skew workplace expectations based on gender.
Stressed out families
University of Utah sociologist Dan Carlson offers another explanation: Many millennials watched their parents balancing two careers with little institutional support—affordable child care, paid parental leave, flexible and well-paid work—and decided it was way too stressful. He writes:
“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.”
The financial crisis, he noted, also forced many men out of work as women increased their workload, imposing a gender shift that many had not willingly chosen. When the change is involuntary, he argues, it results in higher levels of marital dissatisfaction.
Carlson’s research shows that couples who have a more egalitarian setup in housework and childrearing report higher levels of marital and sexual satisfaction than those who don’t. Indeed, in the 1990s, the risk of divorce was higher for couples where the wife earned more than her husband. That gap in risk has since disappeared, he writes.
A lack of support
Europe, where affordable childcare and paid parental leave are the norm, hasn’t seen the same shift toward more conservative attitudes.
Jan Van Bavel, a professor of sociology at the University of Leuven, researched gender equality in the professional and domestic realms in Europe. He said it’s hard to compare to the US for two main reasons: European countries hold diverse views and have differing levels of institutional support for families. Also, the data he used, from the European Social Survey, only ranges from 2004 and 2010, rather than the 40-year span of Pepin and Cotter’s research.
Still, he found that support for gender equality has continued to rise among all age groups. Support for the question, “women should be prepared to cut down on paid work for the sake of family,” has fallen consistently among all age groups.
“As far as the evidence does go we don’t see the same turning point,” as in the US, Van Bavel said. “We see a continuing trend toward more gender equality.”
Other evidence supports the idea that American parents are wanting for more family support. Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas found that parents in the US are more unhappy than parents in 22 developed countries. The reason was 100% attributable to the lack of policies such as paid sick and vacation leave and subsidized child care, she told Quartz.
In countries with the strongest family-friendly policies, parents were happier, which closed the gap between parents’ happiness and non-parents’ happiness, or “the parental deficit.”
Women do more, men do (a little) more
Cotter argues that over the past two decades, the biggest advances in the gender revolution have taken place in the workplace, with much less dramatic change at home.
“Women’s lives have changed more substantially than what men’s have in the world of work,” he said. “But men’s lives, particularly with regard to housework and to childcare, have not changed as much.” He acknowledges that men are doing more, but said “they are not doing nearly as much as women are.”
For example, Pew research he cites shows that men have increased the amount of time they have spent with children from 15 to 30 minutes a day to about an hour and a half. But women have also increased the time they spend with children, while also significantly increasing their time at work. And while they do less housework, they still do significantly more than men.
There’s still hope
Researchers have been trying to figure out what, exactly, stalled the American gender revolution in the mid 1990s. Pepin says their research offers some clues. “Our results add to evidence which suggest a ‘period effect’ – that the culture changed broadly in ways that slowed progress for women,” she said. “And, they further suggest that the location of the stall is in the family.”
While most American couples want to share breadwinning and childcare activities, the lack of social support makes that harder once kids arrive. Without paid leave and childcare, couples revert to traditional roles, even if it’s not what they want. People rethink their values to avoid feeling that “we wanted this but we couldn’t get it, so we settled,” says Koontz. And so they arrive at “egalitarian essentialism,” readjusting “their own emotions and their family narratives to make the best of it.”
But there is room for progress. New research by economists Claudia Goldin and Joshua Mitchell shows that the proportion of women who quit their jobs around the time of the birth of their first child has fallen from 30% in the 1980s to 22% in the early 2000s. As women have children later, they make more headway in their careers before becoming mothers, and are more inclined to work again after having kids.
That kind of persistence argues for more family-oriented policies, if it helps couples achieve what they really want.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that the General Social Survey has a very small yearly sample size, which can make shifts in sentiment among specific age groups appear large.
Also, this article was published shortly before the release of 2016 data from the General Social Survey, which showed a steep increase in young men who disagreed with the survey statement about the male-breadwinner model being superior. In 2016, the number of millennial men who disagreed with the male breadwinner model rose to 89%. Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Center on Contemporary Families, told the New York Times the new data still suggests a rise in traditionalism, but one no longer driven mainly by young men.