How Gender Roles Are Changing in the U.S.

Report Finds Gender Roles Converging Among Young Americans

Man and woman standing back to back depicting gender roles
••• Getty Images/Chris Schmidt

Gender roles are changing at work and at home, according to the research done at the Families and Work Institute in 2008 (revised in 2011, the most recent at publication time). Young men and women alike are challenging traditional gender roles and expecting to share in paid work, as well as tending the household and children according to the benchmark survey of 3,500 Americans.

Converging Gender Roles

For the first time in the survey's history, it showed that women under 29 years of age are just as likely as men to want jobs with more responsibility.

In 1992, the survey found 80 percent of men under 29 years of age wanted jobs with more responsibility, compared to 72 percent of young women. The desire for more responsibility decreased for both genders in the 1997 survey (to 61 percent for men and 54 percent for women), and then went up in 2002 to 66 percent for men and 56 percent for women.

In 2008, the young women who did not want more responsibility explained why:

  • 31 percent cited increased job pressure.
  • 19 percent already have a high-level job.
  • 15 percent expressed concern about having enough flexibility to manage work and home.

Motherhood Doesn't Dim Ambition

The second trend the researchers highlighted was that in the 2008 survey, young mothers wanted more job responsibility than their peers who had no children.

Looking at women under 29 in 1992, 78 percent of childless women versus 60 percent of mothers wanted more responsibility. That flip-flopped in 2008, with only 66 percent of child-free woman and 69 percent of young mothers wanting higher-responsibility jobs.

"In comparing 1992 with 2008, two emerging trends are striking: among millennials (under 29 years old), women are just as likely as men to want jobs with greater responsibility," the report said. "Today, there is no difference between young women with and without children in their desire to move to jobs with more responsibility."

"Taken together, these two trends suggest that millennial women are on a similar footing with their male colleagues when it comes to career ambitions and expectation," the report said.

Men and Women Agree on Gender Roles

Also, for the first time in the survey's history, in 2008 roughly the same percentage of men and women believed in traditional gender roles.

About 42 percent of men and 39 percent of women agreed with the statement that it's better for everyone "if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children." That's down from 74 percent of men and 52 percent of women who supported traditional gender roles in 1977.

You'll notice that more men than women have shifted their views on gender roles between 1977 and 2008. Men in dual-earning households changed their attitudes the most, with only 37 percent holding traditional views in 2008 versus 70 percent in 1977.

Older generations historically hold more traditional views on gender than young people. But the report found members of older generations being more open to non-traditional gender roles than in the past. For details, see page 11 of the report.

More Acceptance of Working Moms

In 2008, 73 percent of employees said working mothers can have as good of a relationship with their children as stay-at-home moms. That's up from 58 percent in 1977.

Among men, the figure was 67 percent in 2008 and 49 percent in 1977. For women, 80 percent in 2008 believed working moms can have equally good child relationships, up from 71 percent in 1977.

People who grew up with a working mom were more likely to strongly agree that working mothers can have just as good relationships with children.

Who Does the Chores?

In 2008, 56 percent of men said they did at least half the cooking, up from 34 percent in 1992. Wives see it slightly differently though with only 25 percent saying men do at least half, up from 15 percent in 1992.

As for house cleaning, there's an even greater difference of perception about who does the work. Fifty-three percent of men said they do at least half, up from 40 percent in 1992. But only 20 percent of women said their spouse does at least half, up from 18 percent in 1992, not a statistically significant difference.

"It has clearly become more socially acceptable for men to be and to say they are involved in child care, cooking and cleaning over the past three decades than it was in the past," the report said.

Growing Work-Life Conflict for Men

As fathers and husbands increase their responsibilities at home, they're also experiencing more difficulty balancing work and family duties.

In 2008, 45 percent of men reported feeling work-life conflict, up from 34 percent in 1997. That compares with 39 percent of women feeling the conflict in 2008, up from 34 percent in 1997.

Fathers were hit the hardest, with 59 percent of dads in dual-earner households reporting work-family conflict, versus 35 percent in 1977. In single-earner families, 50 percent of fathers felt the conflict.

Looking at moms, 45 percent felt the conflict in 2008, up from 41 percent in 1977.

It's great to see that gender roles continue to alter but there is still much work to be done to better our working mom culture. 

Edited by Elizabeth McGrory