via Flickr Commons, credit Talk Radio News Service
via Flickr Commons, credit Talk Radio News Service

President Obama recently announced that all federal employees would have access to six weeks of paid leave to care for a new child. He also emphasized the importance of access to affordable childcare in last week’s State of the Union address. Policy initiatives in these areas are an important first step toward bringing the United States up to speed with other nations. Indeed, the United States remains the only country in the industrialized world that does not legislate any form or length of paid family leave, childcare costs remain high, and, for most workers, career success remains contingent on particularly long and/or inflexible work hours.

Many scholars have argued that this current state of affairs is, in large part, responsible for the stalled progress toward gender equity we’ve seen since the late twentieth century: despite their dramatic rise in employment, women still comprise only a small fraction of elite business and government leaders, and they still do the lion’s share of housework and caregiving. This may not be surprising, given that men and women lack access to supportive work-family policies that could otherwise ease the disjuncture between the demands of modern employment—which are currently premised on a worker who is continuously available and who bears few obligations outside of work—and the often intense demands of raising children. Indeed, many women who “opt out” of full-time careers report doing so not because it was their ideal preference, but because the inflexibility of their workplace or the high costs of childcare left them with few options.

However, identifying the extent to which supportive work-family policies may exert a direct effect on individuals’ preferences and choices about how they organize their work and family life has been challenging. Whereas some individuals may make decisions in response to a constrained set of options, others’ decisions may be based on deeply held, and possibly internalized, beliefs and expectations about gender—beliefs which still tend to prescribe men greater responsibility for earning and women greater responsibility for caregiving. Methodologically, disentangling these two possibilities is difficult.

In a new study (pdf),which will appear in the February issue of American Sociological Review, we use a novel technique to shed light on this puzzle. We conducted a survey experiment with a nationally representative sample of unmarried American men and women between the ages of 18 and 32 who do not have children. Each respondent expressed how he or she would ideally prefer to divide work and domestic responsibilities with a future partner. We also varied two aspects of the survey for some subgroups of respondents. Some participants were told to state how they would ideally organize their future work and family responsibilities, assuming that supportive work-family policies—specifically, paid family leave, subsidized childcare, and flexible workplace practices—were in place. For others, we made no mention of such policies, and also removed an egalitarian relationship as an option from the set of choices listed on the survey.

Our results underscore the notion that the current workplace climate fuels the persistently gendered division of labor in employment and in the family. When respondents were simply asked to state what kind of relationship they preferred, the majority of men and women, regardless of their education level, opted to share earning and household/caregiving responsibilities equally with their partner.

Their study found people's "personal" choices varied depending upon workplace policies. (photo Chris Martin via Flickr Commons)
Their ASR study found people’s “personal choices” varied depending upon workplace policies. (photo Chris Martin via Flickr Commons)

Moreover, if told to assume that supportive work-family policies were in place, women were even more likely to prefer an egalitarian relationship and much less likely to want to be primarily responsible for housework or caregiving. This finding shows that supportive work-family policies directly affect the way that young women would prefer to structure their work and family life.

And finally, when participants were not able to select an egalitarian option—a situation that simulates reality for many families in today’s policy environment—they largely favored more traditionally gendered preferences. For example, when respondents could not select an egalitarian relationship – because we had removed it from the survey response options – men gravitated toward a relationship in which they would be primarily responsible for earning, whereas their spouse would be primarily responsible for housework and caregiving.

These findings suggest that, if we were to change the workplace policy environment, we would likely see changes in how people decide to balance work and family life, with fewer women “opting out” and more men taking on a greater share of caregiving responsibilities. At the same time, our results imply that supportive work-family policies are a key mechanism that can promote gender diversity in work organizations—a message that should be of interest to business leaders who now know that such diversity is critically linked to their bottom line.

To be sure, implementing supportive work-family policies that work are an economic and political challenge, and gender inequalities persist even in countries where supportive policies are widespread. But, our findings suggest that these policies do have the power to foster more gender-egalitarian preferences and attitudes, with broad implications for gender inequality in the workplace and the home. In short, such policies may empower people to live the kind of life they would ideally like to live, an ideal that is now more gender-egalitarian than in previous generations, and that is premised on more women “leaning in” at work and more men “leaning in” at home.

Sarah Thébaud is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. David S. Pedulla is an assistant professor of  Sociology at University of Texas at Austin.