Closing The Gap

Most Americans believe women should be equal at work, but attitudes about their roles at home are more complicated 

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A significant share of Americans still believe that women's and men's household roles should be different — even if they also believe their roles should be equal at work.

A new study, based on national survey data from 1977 to 2016, suggests that despite women's advances in work and education, attitudes about gender equality at home have stalled.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say women should have equal roles at work and at home. But the study also revealed a more complicated view of gender equality: Nearly 25 percent of Americans believe that while women should have the same opportunities as men to work or participate in politics, they should still take on a bigger role in the household.

A smaller share of people believe that men and women should be unequal in both spheres — 5 percent of millennials and 7 percent of those born from 1946 to 1980.

This means a solid portion of Americans believe woman should do more child-rearing and typical household chores like laundry and washing the dishes, and spend less time outside the home.

"The primary pillar of gender inequality in today's society is in the family," William Scarborough, a sociology doctoral candidate at University of Illinois at Chicago and an author of the paper, told CNBC Make It. "People's attitudes toward gender in the family have remained more traditional, with the persistent feeling that women are better suited for childcare than men and should take on more household labor."

The study surveyed 27,000 people over four decades, and included questions like whether men are better suited emotionally for politics than women; if children suffer when their mothers work; if a working mother can establish the same sort of relationship with her children as a mother who does not work; and whether it's better when a man is the breadwinner and the woman stays at home.

Politics of family leave
Politics of family leave

Americans across all generations have grown more egalitarian over the last four decades, but the study suggests that evolution may have stalled. For baby boomers and Generation X, roughly a quarter of each of these groups think that women should have less equal roles in the home, and over half of these populations support equal roles for women at home and at work. Americans born before 1946 are even more traditional: only 48 percent believe women should have equal roles in private and public life.

Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and another author of the paper, told CNBC Make It that the lack of family-friendly policies in the U.S. — including paid family leave, affordable childcare options and flexible schedules for working parents — combined with the increasing demand from workplaces, make it harder on parents.

"Our workplaces have become more demanding, and people are squeezed for time. People are expected to be on call all the time, and standard of living doesn't leave much room for family scheduling," she said.

More women are also doing paid work than ever before, but men are not doing more domestic work. The study found that one-fifth of men born between 1946 and 1980 said women should be more equal at work than at home.

The sentiment that men should be the breadwinners and women the caregivers helps explain why women put four hours a day toward unpaid household work versus men's 2.5, research shows. Women take on more paid work as they continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid work or domestic duties.

And despite some shift in attitudes among all cohorts towards egalitarianism, the gender pay gap has not shrunk (and may even be far wider than commonly cited data has indicated), and the labor force participation rate for women has leveled off.

"Our research is about attitudes. But research on the gender revolution its own complicated puzzle, and we have to figure out why we have an actual stall in women equality, despite some values continuing to become more egalitarian," Risman said. "The answer has to do with the way our workplaces are organized."

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