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 reverse gender roles
••• Getty Images/Chris Schmidt

Gender roles are changing at work and 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 expectations. Increasing numbers of both, the survey of 3,500 Americans found, expect to share work and household responsibilities.

Balancing Power

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

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

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

  • 31% cited increased job pressure
  • 18% already have a high-level job
  • 13% expressed concern about managing work and home responsibilities

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% of childless women vs. 60% of mothers wanted more responsibility. That flip-flopped in 2008, with only 63% of child-free women and 67% 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."

Men and Women Agree

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 40% of men and 37% 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% of men and 52% of women who supported traditional gender roles in 1977.

Notably, 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 36% holding traditional views in 2008 vs. 70% in 1977.

Older generations historically hold more traditional views on gender than young people. But the report found members of older generations to be 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, 74% 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% in 1977.

Among men, the figure was 68% in 2008 and 49% in 1977. For women, 81% in 2008 believed working moms can have equally good child relationships, up from 71% 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, 55% of men said they did at least half the cooking, up from 34% in 1992. Women see it slightly differently, though, with only 26% saying men do at least half, up from 15% 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% in 1992. But only 21% of women said their spouse or partner does at least half, up from 18% 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, husbands, and other male partners increase their responsibilities at home, they're also experiencing more difficulty balancing work and family duties.

In 2008, 49% of men reported feeling work-life conflict, up from 34% in 1977. That compares with 43% of women feeling the conflict in 2008, up from 34% in 1977.

Fathers were hit the hardest, with 60% of dads in dual-earner households reporting work-life conflict, vs. 35% in 1977. In single-earner families, 49% of fathers felt the tension.

Looking at moms, 47% felt work-life friction in 2008, up from 41% in 1977.

Attitudes toward working women have come a long way in the last five decades. There is still a long way to go toward true equality, though. It remains to be seen how views on gender roles and women at work will evolve in the years ahead.

Edited by Elizabeth McGrory