Grim news for those who thought achieving equality between the sexes was merely a matter of time: A new study from the University of Maryland has found that young people are less supportive of power-sharing between the genders than they were 20 years ago, at least on the home front.
The study looked at nationally representative longitudinal data about high-school seniors as part of a Gender and Millennials Online Symposium from the Council on Contemporary Families and found an increase in those who believed that families were better off if the men were “the achievers outside the home” and the women handled most of the family and domestic duties. In 1994, only 42% of high school seniors agreed with that statement. Twenty years later, that was the majority view at 58%.
And while most young people think decisions should be made equally between husbands and wives, there has been an uptick in the number who prefer the men to be dominant. In 1994, only 29% of high school seniors thought “the husband should make all the important decisions in the family.” By 2014, 36% preferred running the home that way.
This does not mean the next generation of college students has completely shifted back to more traditional views of the roles of the sexes. Those same young people were just as likely to be supportive of mothers working, of women in leadership positions outside the home and of women having equal opportunities to employment as were the school leavers of 1994.
But in the trenches of domesticity, the movement towards equality is losing ground. Another paper in the symposium found that the number of 18- to 25-year-olds who disagreed with the statement that “a woman’s place is in the home” had also dropped in the same time period. This is particularly unusual, considering that the most recent studies have found that couples who share household chores more equally are usually happier and more satisfied with their marriage.
“We thought that as women entered the workplace, as they gained more access to income and their days started to look more like men’s, that that would translate to more equality in the home,” says Joanna Pepin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland and one of the lead authors of the study, which is being released as part of a symposium by the Council of Contemporary Families. “But that’s really not what these attitude trends are showing.”
Pepin was particularly surprised that young people are moving away from the idea that spouses should have equal say in decisions. “That’s a signal that men and women are not expected to share power in the families,” she says.
Feminists have long argued that while women have made large gains in the workplace, the home front was still in play. As Gloria Steinem put it, way back in 1995: “We’ve proven that women can do what men did, professionally. But we haven’t convinced ourselves, or them, that men can do what women have done.” When she said that, views on gender roles in the home had been bending towards equality for two decades.
So what’s behind the reverse in support for equality at home? The researchers aren’t sure, but they point to a 2011 study that showed that support for gender equality stalled among adults at around the same period.
“We’re arguing that this is adding to evidence that a new cultural ideology took hold” about that time, says Pepin. Young people appear to be moving toward the belief “that men and women are equal but they’re essentially and inherently different.”
Other contributors to the symposium aren’t so sure this explains everything. “The retreat from egalitarian behaviors and values in many families likely reflects the obstacles couples face in pursuing an egalitarian division,” suggests Daniel Carlson, an assistant professor of Family, Health and Policy at the University of Utah. As couples struggled with inflexible workplaces and public policies that didn’t support working families, they’ve “reverted to conventional gender arrangements and traditional beliefs, transmitting their attitudes to their teenage children.”
Other sociologists have argued that many men react negatively to women’s economic rise or that young people feel sufficiently unnerved by financial role reversals in their own families or communities that they want to support male authority.
“One of the takeaways from this research is that gender attitudes are not monolithic,” says Pepin. “They’re much more complex and contradictory than we think, which I think is really important to pay attention to.”