The Shifting Nature of Gender Norms

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A new study suggests expectations are changing faster for women than for men.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: QueenofTarts/Flickr)

The drive for equality for women took a giant leap forward this week, as Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. But are gender roles really changing among ordinary Americans? A new study that focuses on the circumstances that lead to divorce suggests the answer is both yes and no.

On the one hand, “the husband breadwinner norm persists,” sociologist Alexandra Killewald of Harvard University writes in the American Sociological Review. On the other, attitudes toward who is responsible for the housework seem to have genuinely shifted over the past four decades.

Killewald examined data on 6,300 couples from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a long-running longitudinal household survey, between the years 1968 and 2013. She specifically looked at what economic and work-related factors are associated with marital break-ups.

“Financial considerations — wives’ economic independence and total household income — are not predictive of divorce,” she reports. “These findings suggest that material circumstances, within marriage or outside of it, are not key determinants of marital stability…. The results cast doubt on the claim that increases in divorce rates in the mid-20th century were due to women’s rising economic independence.”

Women’s options have increased, but men pay a price for deviating from their traditional role.

A more likely factor is the shift in attitudes that occurred in the 1970s when that “stand by your man” ethos began to seriously fade. “For marriages begun in 1975 or later,” Killewald writes, “divorce is more likely when husbands are not employed full-time.”

She notes that this may reflect the fact that “husbands’ part-time employment or non-employment is more likely to be involuntary,” and thus financially disruptive to the marriage.

Killewald also noted another, presumably related shift. For couples married before 1975, marriages in which women did most or all of the housework were more likely to endure. That was not true for couples married after 1975.

“For more recent marriage cohorts,” Killewald writes, “at least some egalitarianism in the division of housework may increase marital stability.”

Overall, the findings suggest “changes in the gender structure may not have proceeded evenly for men and women,” she writes. “In recent cohorts, wives’ employment is not associated with the risk of divorce, while husbands’ lack of full-time employment remains associated with marital instability.”

So the fact the wife works isn’t a threat to today’s marriages, but if the husband can’t hold down a full-time job, the wife is less likely to stay with him. When it comes to employment, the clear implication is that women’s options have increased, but men pay a price for deviating from their traditional role.