In the United States, men and women tend to make decisions about how to divide unpaid work in their household and whether and what kind of work to do without the sorts of work-family supportive policies found in many other countries. This leads to gendered patterns of paid and family work and contributes to gender inequality (although these patterns also vary by education and social class). If people weren’t constrained by the lack of policy supports, would they choose egalitarian spousal relationships? A new paper shows most young people would.
David Pedulla and Sarah Thébaud use a survey experiment to query a sample of young, unmarried, men and women in the U.S. They ask how respondents would like to structure their future relationships as a way to study egalitarian attitudes without confounding the results with the current circumstances of older or married respondents.
When forced to choose among these three ways to structure future work and family life without an egalitarian option, women with any college and men with a high school degree or less are most likely to choose a neotraditional relationship structure:
- Self-Reliant: “I would like to maintain my personal independence and focus on my career, even if that means forgoing marriage or a lifelong partner.”
- Neotraditional (Men), Counter-Normative (Women): “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family, whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare).”
- Counter-Normative (Men), Neotraditional (Women): “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare), whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family.”
In the absence of an egalitarian option, many college educated men choose a neotraditional relationship structure; about the same amount prioritize their own independence and career over that of a potential spouse, even if it means foregoing such a relationship. Perhaps reflecting the instability and inadequacy of their own jobs or that of potential spouses, women with a high school degree primarily choose relationship structures that prioritize their own careers, either as self-reliant or counter-normative.
Things change when respondents are given the option of choosing an egalitarian relationship structure where responsibility for household work and paid work are shared between spouses:
- Egalitarian: “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship where financially supporting the family and managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare) are equally shared between my spouse or partner and I.”
Once the egalitarian option is added, it is the predominant relationship structure chosen, across gender and education categories. The authors find no evidence that the odds of desiring an egalitarian relationship vary by gender or education in a meaningful way.
The patterns are similar when a prompt about supportive work-family policies is added; the percentage choosing egalitarian relationships is higher in this condition for all groups except high school educated men, but differences are not significant for men. Models show that with supportive policies, women are much more likely to prefer an egalitarian relationship and much less likely to prefer a neotraditional relationship, regardless of education.
The experimental evidence in this paper paper supports the qualitative findings about young adults in the U.S. described in Kathleen Gerson’s (2010) book The Unfinished Revolution: How A New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America.
If so many young people desire an egalitarian relationship with their spouse before they get married, why doesn’t it work out that way if and when they get married? Pedulla and Thébaud suggest that public policy guaranteeing access to subsidized childcare, paid parental and family medical leave, and flexible scheduling for all employees could be an important part of reducing gender inequality. But when an equal division of paid and unpaid work is not feasible, policies are likely insufficient to counteract the history of gendered “fallback” plans—even in those countries with more supportive policies, gendered patterns are found. For gender equity at home and work, gender norms must change first.
See also Pedulla and Thébaud, “Can we finish the gender revolution if we change workplace policies?”; “The benefits to a paid family leave law nobody is talking about”; and “Men and Women Prefer Egalitarian Relationships—If Workplace Policies Support Them.”