What Does the Shift in Gender Roles Mean for Women in the Workforce?

Family at homeBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In 2009 the Families and Work Institute quietly released a study entitled Times are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and Home [PDF] that dropped quite a few unexpected bombshells. The study’s findings came as a result of the Institute’s 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, which found that millennial women are seeking out jobs with more responsibility; many are earning more than their spouses; and traditional gender roles are changing, among other surprising facts.

Since 1997, the desire to move to jobs with more responsibility among young workers has increased, with this increase being greater for young women—from 54 to 66 percent in 2008. Essentially there is no longer any difference between young women and men in wanting jobs with greater responsibility. The study also found that there is no difference between young women with and without children in their desire to move to jobs with more responsibility. Whereas 60 percent of women under 29 with children and 78 percent of women without children wanted jobs with more responsibility in 1992, today the percentages are 69 percent with children and 66 percent without. This is most likely because millennial women (those under 29, according to the study) are now able to take on more demanding jobs thanks to a slowly evolving shift in how traditional gender roles are perceived and an increase in the amount of time their spouses are spending with their children.

Not only are millennial women less apt to embrace gender roles, but so are their male counterparts. Only 41 percent of employees in 2008 believe it is better “if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children,” down from 64 percent in 1977.

This drop is even more pronounced among men, which averaged 74 percent in 1977 and 42 percent in 2008. There’s more good news on the home front: employed fathers, especially millennials, are spending more time with their children today than their age counterparts did 30 years ago. It was found that millennial fathers spend 4.3 hours per workday with their children under 13, compared with the 2.4 hours spent by their age counterparts in 1977. Interestingly, the amount of time employed mothers spend with their children has not changed in the same span of time, holding solidly at an average of 3.8 hours. Women of today are also reporting that their spouses or partners are taking more overall responsibility for the care of their children, with 31 percent reporting that their spouse now has an increased role in their child’s life.

Women are taking on jobs with more responsibility and in some cases making more money than their spouse (26 percent of women living in dual-earner couples had annual earnings at least 10 percentage points higher than that of their spouse/partner), men are spending more time with their children, shrugging off traditional gender roles, and taking more responsibility for care giving. What does this all mean for the workforce?

Work & Family

According to Carla Goldstein, Director of External Affairs and the Women’s Institute at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, some of the best news to come out of the Families and Work Institute study is that more women are taking on more demanding jobs and becoming higher wage earners, which means they are becoming more economically independent and able to participate more freely in public life. The downside is that work and social structures haven’t adjusted to these changes – which means many women’s dual responsibilities at home and work are still out of sync.

“All of these shifts can change everything: more men will be able to participate in child rearing; more men will nurture and engage their children, but unless there is a change in the social structure that prevents men from participating in their children’s lives – these changes can’t be successful,” Goldstein said. “Women have been doing double duty since WWII, but now we need to shift our focus and figure out how we can support men and women at work; how do we ensure that parents have the time to nurture happy, healthy families?”

That seems to be the million dollar question. Even as the attitudes of men and women change in respect to their roles at work, home, and in their children’s lives, these changes can’t be put into action until employers realize that more flexible work schedules, telecommuting, and better childcare options don’t just benefit women – they benefit families.

Managing Rapid Change

Just as we’ve seen rapid change for women in the past century, things are changing just as rapidly for men. This is illustrated by another interesting fact discovered by the Families and Work Institute Study: Whereas in the past women typically dealt with the difficulties associated with juggling work and life, that burden is now also being placed on men. Changing gender roles appear to have increased the level of work/life conflict experienced by men. According to the study, men’s work/life conflict has increased significantly from 34 percent in 1977 to 45 percent in 2008. These men need the support of their employers in order to participate in the lives of their children and be present in their families, but as their struggle with work/life balance suggests, these shifts will not come easily in the workplace.

“In every generation there have been men who wanted to remove the box gender roles placed on them,” Goldstein said. “As more men become more able to explore the parts of themselves they were previously unable to, more men will feel really good about their increased role in their families’ lives. But we will also see a lot of fear and backlash. Cultural change runs as deeply as gender roles and these types of changes take time. There’s a lot of work ahead.”