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Progress on Female Gender Roles is Slowing, Research Finds

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Growing Equality in Gender Roles Begins to Stall:

Gender roles in society have changed dramatically since the 1950s, when men were the breadwinners and women quit their jobs as soon as becoming mothers -- that is, if they worked outside the home in the first place. But in 2012, a symposium of scholars sponsored by the Council on Contemporary Families looked at the question of how much progress America has made on gender roles in just the previous two decades, with mixed results.

In a keynote paper of the symposium, three academics argued that there was rapid change in gender roles from 1968 through the 1980s, but since that time women have seen little progress in the labor market, management ranks and pay equity. In some cases, the forward movement has reversed slightly, according to David A. Cotter, professor and chair of sociology at Union College; Joan M. Hermsen, associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri; and Reeve Vanneman, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.

"We do not know whether there will be renewed progress in the near future, but at this point it is clear that although the gender revolution has not been reversed, it is stalled on several fronts - and there is still a long way to go," they wrote.

Working Moms Accepted More Than Ever:

One bright spot in the symposium's papers relates to the acceptance of working mothers. For any working mom who has endured nasty comments about leaving her babies or struggled to balance work and home, read on.

The three authors noted that two General Society Survey questions about the effect of mothers working on children found growing support for working mothers through the 1970s through 1980s, but then experienced a decline during the 1990s. "In 1977, more than half of respondents felt that mothers working was harmful to children. By 1994 that percentage had fallen to 30 percent, but by 2000 it had crept back up to 38 percent," they wrote.

"However, in this case, there was a rebound in the first decade of the 21st century, with approval of working mothers reaching new highs. By 2010, 75 percent of Americans agreed that 'a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work,' and 65 percent said that preschool children were NOT likely to suffer if their mother worked outside the home.

Looking at gender roles in the family, however, confuses the picture, with some backsliding in the progress toward gender equality. When Americans were asked whether, 'It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,' 66 percent of Americans agreed and only 34 percent disagreed in 1977.

"These percentages were reversed by 1994, with only 34 percent agreeing that such traditional marital arrangements were better and 66 percent disagreeing," the authors wrote. "Again, though, since 1994 there has been slippage in support for egalitarian family arrangements." In 2000, the percentage disagreeing fell to 60 percent, but then inched up to 64 percent in 2010.

The Big Picture on Gender Roles:

This is not to say that we're back in the stone ages on male and female gender roles. The overarching trend is toward more equal gender roles. "When we look at the contrast between 1950 and today, it may appear that we are in the midst of an ongoing and irreversible revolution in gender roles and relationships," the authors wrote.

"In 1950, less than 30 percent of women worked outside the home, and the typical woman who worked full-time year round earned just 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. By 2010 more than three-quarters of women worked outside the home," they noted. "On average, women now make almost 75 percent as much as men, and women in their 20's actually earn more than their male counterparts in several metropolitan areas."

Moreover, when you look at the 1950s, women were limited to traditionally female occupations, whereas today they can be found in almost any job. In the late 1960s, just over half of voters were willing to vote for a qualified women president, if their party chose one to run. Thirty-years later, 90 percent said they would do so. "In 1960 only a third of college degrees were awarded to women - by 2010, 58 percent of bachelor's degrees went to women," the authors wrote.

Gender Roles and the Labor Market:

Looking more closely at the American workforce, differences in gender roles can still be seen in whether women and men choose to participate in the labor market. From the 1960s through the 1980s, more and more women entered the labor force, with participation rising from 44 percent in 1962 to 74 percent in 1990. But then the progress slowed in the 1990s and stalled in the 2000s, rising only to 78 percent in 2000 and slipping back to 76 percent by 2010.

In recent years, women aren't moving ahead so much as men are falling behind. "The most rapid convergence between women's and men's workforce participation, then, occurred between 1962 and 1990, and most of the slight convergence between men and women since 2000 has not been due to a continued upward trend in women's labor force participation but to a continuing decline in men's labor force participation, which has fallen from 97 percent in 1962 to 89 percent in 2010," wrote Cotter, Hermsen and Vanneman.

Gender Roles and the Jobs We Choose:

Looking at the difference in occupations that men and women choose, the authors found a closing of the gap in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. "Here too, however, the pace of change slowed considerably in the 1990s and all but stopped in the period from 2000-2010," they wrote. For instance, consider that glass ceiling in corporate America, you find "among managers, female representation increased by approximately one percentage point per year in the 1970s and 1980s, but by a total of only three percentage points for the entire decade of the 1990s and just two in first decade of the 21st century."

When you look at gender role changes in occupations, most of the progress has been made in middle-class jobs. "Working class occupations are nearly as segregated today as they were in 1950 and have become more segregated since 1990," they said.

"A similar pattern can be observed in the desegregation of college majors - rapid progress in the 1970s and then a stalling after the mid-1980s. In some fields, women have even lost ground since the mid 1980s," the authors wrote. Women earned only 14 percent of computer and information sciences degrees in 1970. The female share had increased almost threefold, to 37 percent in 1985. "But by 2008 women accounted for only 18 percent of degrees in the field," they reported.

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