Is Progress on Female Gender Roles Slowing Down or Heading Back Up?

Come see what the U.S. opinion is on gender equality

Is Progress on Female Gender Roles Slowing Down or Heading Back Up?
Tom Merton / Getty Images

Gender roles in the U.S. have changed dramatically since the 1950's, when men were the breadwinners and women quit their jobs as soon as becoming mothers -- that is, if they worked outside the home in the first place. Are you curious about what people have thought gender equality over the years? The Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) has been studying America's opinion on this topic since the 1970's and their findings are super interesting.

In a keynote paper of the symposium, three academics argued that there was rapid change in gender roles from 1968 through the 1980's, but since that time women have seen little progress in the labor market, management ranks and pay equity. In 2012 the CCF reported that the forward movement had reversed slightly, according to David A. Cotter, professor and chair of sociology at Union College; Joan M. Hermsen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri; and Reeve Vanneman, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. This was found when the numbers dipped in responses recorded from 2000-2010.

"We do not know whether there will be renewed progress in the near future, but at this point it is clear that although the gender revolution has not been reversed, it is stalled on several fronts - and there is still a long way to go," they wrote.

Then two years later in 2014 and again 2015 the professors discovered that starting in 2006 the support for gender equality began to rise back up.

Their 2014 report stated,

"Although the highest support for gender equity is found among millennials, men and women of all ages, liberals as well as conservatives, have rebounded since the dips from the late 1990's to the early 2000's. In fact, conservatives have shown a greater increase in support for gender equity than liberals, even though their total support levels remain lower."

Working Moms Are Accepted Now More Than Ever

One bright spot in the symposium's papers relates to the acceptance of working mothers. For any working mom who has endured nasty comments about leaving her babies or struggled to balance work and home, read on.

The three authors noted that two General Society Survey questions about the effect of mothers working on children found growing support for working mothers through the 1970's through 1980's, but then experienced a decline during the 1990's. "In 1977, more than half of respondents felt that mothers working was harmful to children. By 1994 that percentage had fallen to 30 percent, but by 2000 it had crept back up to 38 percent," they wrote.

"However, in this case, there was a rebound in the first decade of the 21st century, with approval of working mothers reaching new highs. By 2010, 72 percent of Americans agreed that 'a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work,' and 65 percent said that preschool children were NOT likely to suffer if their mother worked outside the home.

Back in 1977, Americans were asked whether, 'It [was] much better for everyone involved if the man [was] the achiever outside the home and the woman [took] care of the home and family,' 66 percent of Americans agreed and only 34 percent disagreed.

"These percentages were reversed by 1994, with only 34 percent agreeing that such traditional marital arrangements were better and 66 percent disagreeing," the authors wrote. Then in 2000, the percentage disagreeing fell to 60 percent, inched up to 64 percent in 2010, but, and here's the good news, the response hit an all time high of 68 percent in 2012 {whoot!!}.

There's a Reason for the Pay Gap

The overarching trend is toward more equal gender roles. "When we look at the contrast between 1950 and today, it may appear that we are in the midst of an ongoing and irreversible revolution in gender roles and relationships," the authors wrote.

"In 1950, less than 30 percent of women worked outside the home, and the typical woman who worked full-time year round earned just 59 cents for every dollar earned by men.

 "While the median hourly wages of women 35 and under are now 93 percent of their male counterparts, the pay gap among men and women older than 35–those most likely to be married and to have children – remains large."

A 2014 CCF report, by Youngjoo Cha, Ph.D., a professor at Indiana University, states the reason why companies are rewarding those who work more than 50 hours per week. Overworking in this fashion is difficult for working mothers because they typically have family responsibilities.

The study goes on to say this, " the overwork effect accounts for 10 percent of the gender wage gap, offsetting the equalizing effect of women’s educational gains since the early 1990's. One implication of her argument, notes Coontz, is that “If employers continue to penalize workers who do not place work above family life, public support for combining work and family might once again fall.”

Look at the Gender Roles in the Labor Market

Looking more closely at the American workforce, differences in gender roles can still be seen in whether women and men choose to participate in the labor market. From the 1960's through the 1980's, more and more women entered the labor force, with participation rising from 44 percent in 1962 to 74 percent in 1990. But then the progress slowed in the 1990's and stalled in the 2000's, rising only to 78 percent in 2000 and slipping back to 76 percent by 2010.

In recent years, women aren't moving ahead so much as men are falling behind. "The most rapid convergence between women's and men's workforce participation, then, occurred between 1962 and 1990, and most of the slight convergence between men and women since 2000 has not been due to a continued upward trend in women's labor force participation but to a continuing decline in men's labor force participation, which has fallen from 97 percent in 1962 to 89 percent in 2010," wrote Cotter, Hermsen and Vanneman.

Gender Roles and the Jobs We Choose

Looking at the difference in occupations that men and women choose, the authors found a closing of the gap in the 1960's, 70's and 80's.

"Here too, however, the pace of change slowed considerably in the 1990's and all but stopped in the period from 2000-2010," they wrote. For instance, consider that glass ceiling in corporate America, you find "among managers, female representation increased by approximately one percentage point per year in the 1970's and 1980's, but by a total of only three percentage points for the entire decade of the 1990's and just two in first decade of the 21st century."

When you look at gender role changes in occupations, most of the progress has been made in middle-class jobs. "Working class occupations are nearly as segregated today as they were in 1950 and have become more segregated since 1990," they said.

"A similar pattern can be observed in the desegregation of college majors - rapid progress in the 1970s and then a stalling after the mid-1980s. In some fields, women have even lost ground since the mid 1980s," the authors wrote. Women earned only 14 percent of computer and information sciences degrees in 1970. The female share had increased almost threefold, to 37 percent in 1985. "But by 2008 women accounted for only 18 percent of degrees in the field," they reported.

 

The many reports that the CCF have conducted have one thing in common. The road to gender equality will be long-term and won't just suddenly happen. There are too many factors to consider and policies will change gradually, and new support structures will be slow to evolve (like great child care). The good news is that there's been a steady climb and there's hope that one day gender equality will happen.

Updated by Elizabeth McGrory