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Work-Life Balance And Gender Roles

A recent study shows that gender roles may not have equalized as much as we think.

By Kira Schwarz ‘22

In 1963, Texas A&M University opened its enrollment to women for the first time, reflecting the sweeping demands of the second-wave feminist movement, which called for equality in education, career opportunities, and domestic responsibilities. The university’s decision to open enrollment to women is one of many examples of the movement’s accomplishments. 

Almost 60 years later, women now outnumber men in college enrollment, and the workforce is now made up of 57% women. But how does the new generation of college graduates perceive gender roles and expectations for work and family life?

A recent study conducted by Allegra Midgette, a psychological and brain sciences professor at Texas A&M, found that most college students believe women should have equal opportunities to work outside the home to men, but the majority of household chores and childcare needs should still be met by women — though it’s okay for men to help with these tasks.  

“A lot of the research done in the past has found that college-attending, heterosexual young adults at primarily White institutions, particularly young women, expect that they’re going to do more of the household labor and childcare in their future,” explained Midgette. “They believe that women should be able to work outside [the home], but not so much that their male partner should be equally involved with the chores and childcare responsibilities inside.”

Midgette’s purpose for the study was to understand how young adults are making sense of balancing work and family life, after other studies highlighted the demographic’s expectation to have both in their futures. To gauge how these roles would be negotiated, the participants were given survey questions surrounding two “tension embedded” scenarios — should mothers with preschool-aged children be working? And should a husband who’s tired from working outside the home help out with chores at home?

“I wasn’t surprised that most young adults in the studies said they think women should be able to work, but I was surprised by this language of the moms being limited by having children.” Midgette shared. “There was also little talk about the married mother having her partner do the childcare, or how they expect this to be balanced. There’s a focus on women and mothers having their own ability to go out, but less talk about how their partners and/ or fathers would be involved in addressing childcare needs.”

Midgette and her colleagues argue that this is a reflection of societal expectations for women to live up to male standards by focusing more on work and less on the communal roles of childcare. According to her, as long as the need for care exists, this equalization is not sufficient.

“One of the findings of this research is that by putting so much emphasis on women’s engagement in the workforce, we’re making invisible the role that men could play to support their partners in these kinds of situations,” Midgette said. “Ultimately, this work suggests the importance of going beyond individual work-life balance, which often assumes that the family will be responsive to work structures – for example, work responsibilities, deciding what can be done at home – to considering how work life can be organized in ways – for example, length of the work day – that are compatible with and responsive to addressing the need for care and care responsibilities within the family.”