Why many children have more-liberal attitudes about gender roles

Dwyer Gunn | Jun 17, 2019

Sections Economics

The traditional American family of the 1950s—characterized by a homemaker mother and a father employed outside the home—represents a shrinking percentage of US households. Almost 60 percent of married mothers in 2011 were employed outside the home, up from 25 percent in 1960—and almost a quarter of married mothers earned more than their husbands did, up from 4 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Census data indicate nearly a quarter of children lived with only their mother in 2016, up from just 8 percent in 1960.

Many researchers have been looking at how this cultural shift, and the changing balance of economic power between men and women, has affected attitudes among adults. But what are the effects of this social shift on children? Research by Chicago Booth’s Marianne Bertrand suggests it’s leading many children to develop more-liberal attitudes toward gender roles.  

Researchers have in recent years amassed evidence that the changing nature of the American family is causing tension in some households. For example, a study by Bertrand, Chicago Booth’s Emir Kamenica, and National University of Singapore’s Jessica Pan, a graduate of Booth’s PhD Program, suggests that US women who earn more money than their husbands are less likely to report happy marriages and are more likely to divorce. 

To examine how changing gender dynamics are affecting children’s notions of gender roles, Bertrand analyzed multigenerational data from the NLSY79, a long-running survey launched by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1979. The BLS polled a group of almost 13,000 youths (initially aged 15 to 22) annually between 1979 and 1994. Since then, it has continued to contact the participants biennially—plus the children of female respondents. 

The survey has always asked its respondents to react to six statements about traditional gender roles. The statements include, “A woman’s place is in the home, not the office or shop.” And, “It is much better for everyone concerned if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Bertrand used reactions from the children of female NLSY79 respondents to construct an index measuring attitudes about gender roles, with higher numbers corresponding to more liberal attitudes, and 24 representing the highest possible index score. 

For boys, having either a married, working mother or a mother who was the primary breadwinner meaningfully moved gender-role attitudes in a more liberal direction.

She finds that children of nonmarried mothers exhibited more-liberal gender-role attitudes. They were, for example, less likely to agree that “a woman’s place is in the home” or that women are happier when they “stay at home and take care of their children.” Having a nonmarried mother was associated with a 0.6 increase in the gender-role index for both male and female children.

For the children of married, working mothers, the effect of having a mom who’s employed outside the home differed by gender. Girls’ gender-role attitudes didn’t appear to be meaningfully affected by having a working mom. For boys, however, having either a married, working mother or a mother who was the primary breadwinner did meaningfully move attitudes in a more liberal direction. Having a primary breadwinner mother, in fact, is reflected by an increase of 1.2 in the gender-role index—a magnitude that’s comparable to the average gap in attitudes between girls and boys.

Several other factors are also correlated with gender-role attitudes. For boys, growing up in a household with a higher and more stable income was associated with more-liberal gender attitudes. A mother’s education levels and her own gender-role attitudes seemed to have a particularly strong effect on her daughters’ views.

Bertrand also finds that the family-work arrangements children experience from age 6 to 15 are more strongly correlated with gender-role attitudes than the arrangements they’re exposed to earlier in life. This finding provides support for the theory that mothers’ role modeling (their participation in the workforce, for example), rather than unobserved variables such as fathers’ gender-role attitudes, drove the results. Role modeling is likely to have a stronger effect as children grow older and are more aware of their mothers’ work lives, writes Bertrand. 

Boys of working, married mothers who were employed in the formal labor market from economic necessity rather than personal preference displayed less of the liberal shift in gender-role attitudes, the research finds.