An incomplete revolution?
Both men and women in couple families now tend to work. Does this mean that there’s been a decline in support for traditional gender roles in the home and workplace? And does it mean that women do less unpaid labour within the home as their participation in the labour market has risen?
Support for traditional gender roles has declined over time.
In the mid-1980s, close to half the public agreed “a man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”. Just 13% subscribe to this view now.
Substantial support remains for women being the primary carer of young children.
33% think a mother should stay at home when there is a child under school age, compared with 64% in 1989. The most popular choice now is for the mother to work part time.
Women still do a disproportionate amount of unpaid labour within the
Women living with a partner report spending an average of 13 hours on housework and 23 hours on caring for family members each week; the equivalent figures for men are 8 hours and 10 hours.
Both sexes view their relative contributions to household work as unfair.
60% of women report doing more than their fair share of household work, compared with 10% of men. 37% of men report doing less than their fair share, compared with 6% of women.
Families in contemporary society are becoming more individualised. The so-called nuclear family norm of a married heterosexual couple bringing up their children, with a traditional gender division of labour, is increasingly under challenge. There has been a rise in women's participation in the labour market over the past few decades and, in today's couple families, the tendency is for both partners to work. However, women, especially those with young children, still disproportionately work part-time, and they still do the bulk of unpaid care. So, this suggests that, at least as yet, we have not seen a so-called 'gender role revolution' (Esping-Andersen, 2009).
In this chapter, we ask whether there is evidence that the increase we have seen in women's labour market participation is coupled with a more widespread shift in perceptions about gender roles. In other words, we report how far a gender role revolution has been evolving in Britain in the last 30 years, and whether it seems set to continue to progress or whether it has now run its course. Firstly, using questions fielded on British Social Attitudes since 1984, we chart changes in public attitudes to mothers playing a dual role in paid work and raising children, and what is seen as the appropriate division of labour in this respect between mothers and fathers. And we take a closer look, with new questions fielded in 2012, at how people think couple families should divide their work and familial responsibilities. By looking at generational change in attitudes, we try to unpick what is driving or hindering change towards greater gender egalitarianism.
Secondly, we report on what couples say about their own division of labour within the household - who does what at home - to see the extent to which things have changed over the past 30 years. While the male breadwinner family system has been in decline for at least half a century, concerns about 'work-family conflict' have only been voiced more recently. Some argue that the only way that family conflicts associated with women's labour market participation can be avoided is if men take on more of the housework and childcare (Witherspoon and Prior, 1991; Lewis et al., 2008; Himmelweit, 2010). So, in 2012, are men doing more of the household tasks than they used to, or are women still expected to do a 'second shift', adding employment to their primary responsibility for housework and family care (Hochschild, 1989)? As well as looking at what men and women do within the household, we also look at whether or not they perceive their own division of unpaid labour as fair, and whether they feel conflicted by their responsibilities at work and at home. Importantly, in addressing the question of whether there is evidence of a gender role revolution, we report on how these perceptions have changed over time.
Certainly, with the rise in mothers' labour market participation, there is a role for policy measures that seek to reduce family-work conflicts, including childcare provision, improvement in part-time working conditions and parental leave. In the UK there was little relevant policy on such issues until the 1990s. After 1997 there was a surge in policies designed to support the 'adult-worker model', whereby mothers, including lone mothers, were encouraged to work (Lewis, 2008). From 1997 onwards steps have been taken to improve childcare provision (e.g. Sure Start was launched in 1998). However, childcare in Britain remains among the most expensive in Europe (Schober and Scott, 2012). The Part-Time Work Directive (1997) was an important advance, stipulating that part-time workers were entitled to the same benefits as full-time workers, in terms of training, pay and parental leave. In reality, parental leave provision in the UK is mainly about maternity leave, which became a statutory right in the 1999/2001 Employment Relations and Employment Act (Williams, 2004). While paternal leave entitlement has improved somewhat since it was first introduced in 2003, it remains the case that few families can afford to take it up, as income loss is often prohibitive. Even so largely symbolic policies - like the notion of shared parental leave - do matter, because they encourage fathers to get more involved in the care of infants.
It is questionable as to how far the public will endorse policies that are costly at a time of economic crisis, when the country has to restrict public expenditure. We conclude the chapter by examining current attitudes to parental leave when a new child is born. Does the public favour policy measures which promote a greater merging of gender roles in the home and workplace, or do preferences reflect the status quo? These are big issues which get to the heart of questions about how far the state should be involved in shaping family life, gender equality, and parental rights and responsibilities.
Our chapter builds on a wealth of literature about family and gender role change, providing an up-to-date picture of Britain today. Given some suggestion of a more recent retreat from gender egalitarianism because of concerns voiced about potential conflicts between maternal employment and family wellbeing, especially for families with young children (Scott, 2010), we look for any changes to earlier findings about public support for mothers' dual paid work and family roles (Witherspoon and Prior, 1991; Scott et al., 1996).
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- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- In 2002 and later years, answer categories were framed with reference to the respondent - "always me", "usually me", "about equal", "usually spouse/partner" and "always spouse/partner". In 1994 and earlier years, response categories were framed with reference to the gender of the individual performing the specific task - "always the woman", "usually the woman", "equal or both", "usually the man" or "always the man". The data presented in Table 5.6 was re-classified for the later years, to reflect the format in which the question was asked in earlier years.
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