Friday, February 26, 2016

Two Decades of Gender Role Attitudes in Europe

Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in attitudes towards women in the workforce—but when it comes to work and family, how much have our gender roles really changed?

This week’s WAPPP seminar featured an investigation of changing gender role attitudes in 17 European countries from 1990-2010. Professor Mary Brinton, Reischauer Institute Professor and Department Chair of Sociology at Harvard University, discussed her work with graduate student Carly Knight on the rise of gender egalitarian attitudes.

The inspiration for this project comes from the “stalled gender role revolution” beginning in the early 1990’s. The pace of change has stagnated in a number of areas, including closing the wage gap, decreasing occupational sex segregation, and changing household gender roles. Professor Brinton finds that beliefs about male superiority have decreased drastically over time, but may have been supplanted by gender essentialist notions of what is “normal” for men and women that have slowed changes in gender roles. Gender essentialism is not necessarily opposed to egalitarianism: it is possible to consider men and women equal but different in significant ways. Critically, Professor Brinton notes, gender role attitudes seem to be multidimensional: we should not expect a straight-line continuum from traditional to egalitarian attitudes. Instead, there may be many different “egalitarianisms” that have different levels of essentialism and respect for individual choices. This research project is intended to parse the different dimensions of gender role attitudes.

The key questions in this research are whether traditional (male breadwinner) gender role attitudes are declining everywhere in the postindustrial world, and if so, what is replacing them? To test these questions, Professor Brinton studied responses to the World Values Survey and European Values Survey from 17 European countries from 1990-2010. In particular, she focused on the items in the survey that had to do with men’s and women’s roles in the labor market and in the family. Specifically, she used data from respondents asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with the following seven statements:

  1. A working woman needs to have children in order to be fulfilled
  2. A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who doesn’t work.
  3. Being a housewife is just as fulfilling as working for pay.
  4. Both husband and wife should contribute to household income.
  5. A job is all right, but what most women want is a home and children.
  6. Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person.
  7. When jobs are scarce, a man should have more right to a job than a woman.

Using latent class analysis, Professor Brinton grouped individuals into clusters based on their attitudes toward these seven statements. The results yielded four gender role attitude “classes.”

The first, traditionalism, is just what we would expect in terms of male and female roles in the labor market and family. Traditionalists comprise 23% of the overall sample.

The second, work egalitarian, is most closely associated with thinking that men and women should both work. Work egalitarians strongly disagree that men have more right to a job than a woman in tough times and agree that working mothers can establish just a strong a relationship with their children as stay-at-home mothers. Work egalitarians make up 29% of the total sample.

The third category, dual-responsibility egalitarian, comprises 30% of the total sample. Dual-responsibility egalitarians think that women should work, but also demonstrate a great deal of gender essentialism when it comes to women’s roles in the family. This group strongly agrees that women should work, but also feel that women need a family and children. Dual-responsibility egalitarians place significant emphasis on what women should do based on their identity as women.

By contrast, the fourth group, flexible egalitarian, believes that women have choices and that all choices are valid. Only 18% of the total sample falls into this group, which is characterized by the beliefs that working mothers can establish strong relationships with their children and that being a housewife can be just as fulfilling as paid labor.

Having identified these four categories, Professor Brinton set out to track the change in prevalence of each attitude class over time. The prevalence of traditional gender role attitudes has dropped precipitously: 40% of the 1990 sample espoused traditional views, down to 10% in 2010. Work egalitarian and dual-responsibility egalitarian attitudes have increased the most over this period: flexible egalitarian attitudes remain somewhat rare.

Professor Brinton compared a few individual countries’ paths of change within the sample. In Hungary and Poland, dual-responsibility egalitarianism has generally replaced traditionalism. By contrast, in Germany, Spain, and Denmark, work egalitarianism is most prominent. Other than the decrease in traditionalism, there hasn’t been a significant convergence toward any particular egalitarianism in the 17 countries in the sample.

This work opens up the opportunity for much more research: this analysis descriptively defines the types and changes in attitudes, but doesn’t tell us much about who holds these views. For example, flexible egalitarianism may be constrained by social class, as only certain women can afford to have choices. Further, the surveys have only just begun to add items about expectations for men’s roles. We look forward to more work on changing gender role attitudes in the future!

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