Study: Gender equality ambivalence on the rise

Nara Schoenberg
Chicago Tribune

The percentage of Americans who oppose women’s equality in both the home and the workplace has plummeted since the 1970s, according to a recent study based on survey results from more than 27,000 people.

But the news isn’t all good for women seeking a level playing field.

“What our study found is that the vast majority of Americans are really comfortable with women working,” said William Scarborough, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of the study.

“But in the home, there’s this persistence of belief that women are better suited for caregiving and, specifically, child care.”

Attitudes: The study, which pooled responses to the General Social Survey, found that attitudes toward gender equality fell into three basic categories: traditional, egalitarian and ambivalent. Traditionals, who oppose gender equality both at home and at work, were dominant in 1977, with 60 percent of Americans falling into that category, according to Scarborough. In sharp contrast, only 7 percent of Americans were traditionals in 2016, according to the study, which was published in November in the journal Gender & Society.

But the authors found that while traditional views decreased over the decades, there was a rise in the number of people who supported gender equality in the home or the workplace, but not both. These ambivalents made up 24 percent of the population in 2016.

Most ambivalents favored equality in the workplace but not at home, where they think women should do more of the cleaning and child care than men.

The study used statistical analysis to identify attitude clusters.

“I found the methodology innovative and interesting,” said David Cotter, a professor of sociology at Union College who does research in the field. “It’s really intriguing. I think it helps shed some new light on problems that I and a lot of other folks have been thinking about.”

He said that previous studies have tended to measure attitudes toward equality on a single scale, from most to least extreme. Dividing people into multiple attitude clusters allows for closer examination of, say, people who embrace equality in the workplace but not in the home.

Groupings: The study found that men, the less educated, nonworkers and those living in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee were more likely to be traditionals than women, the highly educated, New England residents and workers. Similarly, men, part-time workers or nonworkers, and those whose education stopped before college were more likely to be ambivalents favoring equality in the workplace but not the home.

Egalitarians – those who support gender equality in both personal and professional spheres – were more likely to be female, black, more educated and New England residents, and younger generations were more egalitarian than older ones.

In 2016, 69 percent of the population was egalitarian, according to the study. But egalitarian views haven’t necessarily translated to egalitarian realities. In what some call the “stalled gender revolution,” progress in areas such as the gender wage gap has slowed in the 21st century, according to study co-author Barbara Risman.

The explanation isn’t values, said Risman, a professor of sociology at UIC; studies indicate egalitarian views are widespread.

“The question is, can people live their values?” she said.

She believes that the structure of the workplace, which doesn’t take into account the needs of those who are parenting or caretaking, is holding women back.

She’d also like to see changes in the home, where women continue to do more cleaning and child care than men.