Working women hurt their families

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 8, 2008

A “study”: conducted by sociologists from Cambridge University seems to suggest that the support for working mothers is weakening. The researchers compared survey results from the 1980s till recently, and found “growing sympathy for the old-fashioned view that a woman’s place is in the home, rather than in the office”, caused by “mounting concern that women who play a full and equal role in the workforce do so at the expense of family life.”

This type of quantitative research examines the answers which people give to statements such as “A husband’s job is to earn income; a wife’s to take care of the children,” or “Family life suffers if a woman works full time.” Typically respondents can choose between the options ‘agree, disagree, agree strongly, disagree strongly, or don’t know/neutral’. I don’t think one has to be a specialist in survey design to see some problems with such statements. They are incredibly blunt and can be interpreted in many different ways. What does it mean, that ‘family life suffers’? It can mean anything from children undoubtedly not getting enough attention from their parents, or always eating prefab meals (both which I’d consider significant harms to children), to children sometimes not having a healthy evening meal with one or both of their parents but rather with a loving relative (which I’d consider no harm at all). Similarly, we don’t have other information apart from the information given by the statement. What kind of full-time job does the mother have? A job which makes her come home totally stressed out, or a job which gives her ample opportunity for self-development and which is a source of satisfaction? A job for 36 or 44 hours a week? A job which has flexible hours allowing her to do some of the work in the evenings when the children sleep, or one which has no flexibility at all? And what about the partners/fathers? Is there a caring father around, and how many hours does he work? Is there another caring family member or friend around? What age are the children? Do they have any special psychological or health needs? All these things matter hugely if one wants to answer the questions whether full-time maternal (and paternal !) employment harm children. We don’t know how respondents interpret and contextualise these blunt statements, and hence we don’t know what they agree or disagree with.

No doubt the scholars who did the study are aware of these limitations; and since they compare the responses over time, they can draw some conclusions related to change over time, assuming that the ‘contextualisation’ or ‘interpretation’ of these blunt statements has remained the same over time (which I’d doubt, though). What I would find really interesting are the results from qualitative research (like in-depth interviews) with the same people who have stated their opinions on these blunt statements, so that we get a little bit of a grasp of how to ‘decode’ the results of such survey research.

And of course one should add the obvious: opinions should not be confused with facts. Certainly not when it concerns such ideology-sensitive issues as gender inequality.



Finnsense 08.08.08 at 5:46 am

I think you make sensible points, though having experienced my wife being at home and at work with young children, I would have to say in our particular family I would agree that home life suffers when my wife is working full-time (37.5hr/week in Finland). This is largely a function of the increased stress levels that occur when you have to rush to work, rush home, rush the dinner on and so on. I’m sure more energetic or less highly strung people would do fine.

Incidentally, when my wife first went back to work she did a 25 hour week, which was great.


Katherine 08.08.08 at 7:01 am

Finnsense, did you ever stop to consider that your home life suffers when you work full time?


Z 08.08.08 at 7:30 am

I hate those opinion polls. They fail so spectacularly at their stated objectives that I balance between two options: people designing them are spectacularly stupid or they are members of a secret conspiracy trying to make all of us spectacularly stupid so as to rule over us (and they are really lizards). Also, what Katherine said.


Chris Bertram 08.08.08 at 7:45 am

I think I saw another study recently that suggested that the very low birth rates in mediterranean countries could be explained by the persistence of traditional norms for motherhood. That women were saying “no thanks” in other words. Societies that enabled women to both work and have children, produced more children than societies that imposed a choice.


Dave 08.08.08 at 8:48 am

Leave the poor Finn alone! Anyway, I know my home life suffers when I’m not at work. I’m a grumpy old sod who’s far better off out of the kids’ way earning them a decent lifestyle instead of telling them to pick stuff up off the floor….


Z 08.08.08 at 8:48 am

Very probable, and quite probably the reason why Japan also has a very low birth rate.


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 9:20 am

Finnsense response is exactly what is wrong with the assumptions underlying this study, which Katherine immediately points out. This shows the problem with empirical studies founded in poorly thought through premises and/or theory.

Dave’s response is a cop-out with obvious counterfactual problems.

Solution to getting men and women to share child and home care more evenly. Very generous parental leave benefits, labour law/standards geared towards employers accepting that all their 25-45 (or whatever) employees will have caregiver responsibilities that need to be accommodated into working schedules, and finally for the gender equality movement to actually act in a way that demonstrates that they have moved beyond the simplistic and unfair a) women should feel shame for not pursuing careers, b) men are homework avoiders and they are the ones that need to change their value systems which they control because they control society. What needs to be clear as well is that given existing social norms and cultural expectations men are to an important degree leveraged out of enjoying valuable goods like being on parental leave for six months and having somebody else working to bring in additional financial resources and that women are in part responsible for actively leveraging gender roles for this end (along with men, employers, etc…).


Martin Wisse 08.08.08 at 9:41 am

No doubt the scholars who did the study are aware of these limitations

…and designed them into their study to push their own agenda.


Chris Bertram 08.08.08 at 9:50 am

This is what I was referring to in #4


Ingrid Robeyns 08.08.08 at 9:51 am

Actually, I think the scholars were probably constrainted by the fact that they wanted to compare change over time, and then one has no option but to use existing (old) surveys, which were designed by other people… There are probably recent surveys around that phrase the question as “if both parents work, the family suffers” (I think this is the case with surveys from the Dutch Socio-cultural Statistics Office), but then it is very unlikely that one can make comparisons back to the 1980s. And it’s likely that many respondents interpret this anyway as “if the mother works”…


Ingrid Robeyns 08.08.08 at 9:56 am

aaron, in theory I agree, yet in practice I think most men are happy with their assigned gender roles. IN countries where men have equal entitlements to women for parental leave (like in the NL) it is still women who overwhelmingly take it. I know many women (my age) who have male partners whom they would want to do more care work, but the men say No Thanks because it will hurt their carreers. As if it doen’t hurt women’s carreers! Yet I also know a few women who like to see the househodl and children as their terrain, as an area of power almost. I think they are contributing to an injustice, and I guess to that extent we agree about change that is needed.


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 10:13 am


I think you underestimate the degree to which men are limited, whether they/we know it or not, by social conditions that make their self-worth and their attractiveness as sexual or life partners tied up with their economic success.

You are of course right that men try to maintain gender roles because they benefit from them. But my point was that this is not the entire story. It is also the case that lots of well educated and successful women who want their men to do more child rearing/home work also want their men to have successful well paid careers, and when push comes to shove it is not the men alone that are responsible for splitting duties along traditional gender roles. It takes a lot of effort from both sides to create a situation where both are comfortable with the economic, career, and lifestyle implications of sharing child rearing evenly, and addressing the social status conditions/implications for males is not the trivial issue that many make it out to be.


Finnsense 08.08.08 at 10:20 am

“Finnsense, did you ever stop to consider that your home life suffers when you work full time?”

Yes but no. Sadly my wife works in a caring profession so unless we wanted to eat gruel it was always going to be her that stays at home. Obviously she is only in a caring profession because it fits her gender stereotype, which is also the reason she cries at soppy movies, likes dressing up and can’t run as fast as me. It is only disreputable scientists that argue that men and women are not exactly the same and I for one find it disgusting that people try to suggest that women might in general be better equipped to be the primary carer than men.

I’ll have you know I wrote this wearing a leopard skin leotard.


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 10:33 am

Is the idea that the gap in natural empathy is so huge between you and your wife that she can succeed in dressing, feeding, cleaning, and chasing after a two year old all day while you can’t? I find this empirically implausible; 1) the work is not emotional brain surgery and 2) little evidence for a gap in capacity for empathy between men and women as large as it would need to be to make the claim intelligible (although it is of course the case that if men are socialised into not seeing themselves as caregivers for children and have little practice when the opportunity arises they will underperform).

In general I do not see how you think your shaming debate technique is supposed to work, you need a good argument at the outset to employ it.


Katherine 08.08.08 at 10:37 am

Well done, Finnsense, in missing the point almost completely.


Katherine 08.08.08 at 10:40 am

As far as I can see, this is just another in a long line of attempts to make women feel guilty for wanting a little bit of what men take entirely for granted.

So they can take their study and shove it up their entitled arses.


Dave 08.08.08 at 10:57 am

You say “cop-out”, I say “joke”. Jeez, lighten up. We ALL know the world would be a better place if “work” was something that happened around a sane and stable family life [I say “we”, while being perfectly aware that for some people a “sane and stable family life” sounds like a recipe for palaeoconservative Hell], but until the revolution, we just have to make do…


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 11:02 am


Did I say something that requires that my comments now be moderated?


Z 08.08.08 at 11:10 am

In practice I think most men are happy with their assigned gender roles

I am not sure. It might look that way from a woman perspective, after all it is true that many more men than women seem to defend their assigned gender role (say with respect to their precious careers). However, part of the assigned gender role of men is to prove that they are not girls, so a lot of vociferous defense can be read as a deep insecurity about what they would be if deprived of their exclusive access to some social good (Would they then be girls? Or gays perhaps?). And that ultimately is not the sign of someone being very happy. La domination masculine says it better than I, of course.

Also, what Aaron_M said.


Dave 08.08.08 at 11:37 am

BTW, am I alone in spotting a problem here?:
“opinions should not be confused with facts. Certainly not when it concerns such ideology-sensitive issues as gender inequality.”

Is it not, rather, the case that what each side of the debate here considers to be a “fact” is merely a piece of ideologically-fabricated opinion, in the eyes of the other?

I mean, an awful lots of the world’s problems would go away, if we could all agree what “facts” were…


Laura 08.08.08 at 11:44 am

poor mens


novakant 08.08.08 at 11:54 am

I know a stay-at-home dad. His career has been on the back-burner for various reasons, not least because there are only so many hours left in a day when you have to take care of the kids and the household. His wife has a good and stressful job providing the main share of the income. Both her and the family as a whole would definitely suffer, if he too had a full-time job. He is not entirely content with his situation, just as a traditional housewife might not be, but currently it’s simply a necessity and he’s happy enough to devote most of his time to the family. Yet, you cannot imagine the amount of flak he has to take for not fulfilling the gender stereotype. At best he is regarded as a bit of an oddity not to be taken very seriously, at worst people express pity for his wife and disdain for him. And I’ve heard such judgments not only from older people with conservative values, but also from young women who describe themselves as feminists. If the roles were reversed, few would bat an eyelid. It seems that true gender equality is still a long way off, many people find it incredibly hard to just say: “hey, whatever works for them”. Granted, his close family and friends, who know how they actually live, have come around to doing just that, so there might be hope that perceptions will change in the long run.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.08.08 at 12:22 pm

Aaron, thanks for elaborating — I agree with what you write (we may disagree in where we think most effort should be done, perhaps). btw, I also don’t know why your other comment was put into the moderation queue, normally it only happens when you write from a different IP-adres or with a different name/e-mail address (then WordPress regards you as a ‘new’ commentator). As far as I know, no human being intervened (in any case not me).

Laura: I sincerely don’t know what you want to say. It’s probably my limited knowledge of expressions in English (i’m serious!).

Of course I know that there are no ‘facts’ in the social sciences (and I was expecting that I’d earlier get some flag for that), yet there is a lot of difference between an opinion, let alone an opinion only informed by one’s own life and that of those around us, versus a ‘best-guess-estimate’ based on open-minded research. For example, I’ve, over the years, come to reconsider my opinion about child care for babies younger than one, thanks to research that I read by a range of scholars.

Final thing: I don’t think these scholars have an ideological agenda – and my guess is, knowing some of Cambridge sociology, that if anything, they would be inclined to be pro-feminist. They are merely reporting what surveys reveal – and the surveys have not been designed by them. Obviously many survey designs are influenced by ideologies and worldviews, and in this case it is rather striking to me (for one thing, since there were only questions about mothers, not about fathers). I’d be interested to see whether in the study itself (rather than the press release) they’ve done some critical reflection on the limitations of their data.


bicycle Hussein paladin 08.08.08 at 12:24 pm

social conditions that make their self-worth and their attractiveness as sexual or life partners tied up with their economic success.


Women generally don’t get dismissed for not having high enough salaries, for “not being aggressive enough”, not having a nice car, etc. How many times have you heard a guy say “I think she’s attractive, but she just doesn’t have any future in that career,” or ignore an attractive, nice woman in favor of a less attractive, less nice woman with a nice car, a nice house, etc.? I’m sure it happens but I don’t think it happens to women nearly as much as it happens to men.

In dating and marriage, enough women prefer men that fulfill stereotypical male gender expectations that, yes, I think it is partly their fault that men continue playing to those expectations. It’s a (perceived) social good for somebody to fulfill stereotypical gender roles, whether as a man acting aggressive and macho, or as a woman acting demure and girly. It’s personally advantageous for people to cater to those in their personal behavior and dating choices. But while men may have more control over society, both men’s and women’s choices perpetuate the system.


Laura 08.08.08 at 12:34 pm

Well, there are facts you could look at. Salaries, benefits, number of women taking part-time work vs. men. One could look at family-friendly benefits over the last 20 years or so and figure out if they’ve increased or decreased or if more women than men take advantage of them.


GreatZamfir 08.08.08 at 12:38 pm

For all its weaknesses, is the conclusion of this study really that surprising? The number of working mothers has grown a lot since 1980 despite these opinions, so it seems likely to me that increased negativety is a bit of a backlash now that people are more aware how it works out in practice.

Both my parents and my parents-in-law were pretty strong proponents of equal parenting, and they worked double-part-time during the early years of the children ( my parents-in-law even swapped the male and female chracters in bedtime stories to prevent stereotypes) . But circumstances lead for both couples to a situation with the father in a full-time, higher income job.

Now that we are ourselves sort of planning for these things ( although with quite some years to go), we might well have a more negative attitude about the possibilities of equal parenting than our parents had when they were our age. But that’s not because the actual situation has become worse, it’s probably a lot better than it was. We just have more examples to draw from.


ogmb 08.08.08 at 12:38 pm

I see absolutely no support for the claim that the survey design is flawed, i.e. that the stated conclusion would fundamentally change if the researchers had just asked those questions. (And just what exactly should a question like “Is there a caring father around, and how many hours does he work” control for?) The results of this study are very much in tune with a general recognition that (1) both parents working has a negative effect on home life, (2) equalizing alternatives (two part-time jobs, stay-at-home dad) are in short supply in the current labor market, so (3) the respondents, by force of habit, returned to the status quo ante of favoring historical gender roles because “it worked well enough, so why change it?” I certainly find this trend in public opinion a cause for concern, but it’s consistent with other recent trends in public opinion, and to wish it away by questioning the study design without much credible support doesn’t seem to help the discussion.


GreatZamfir 08.08.08 at 12:46 pm

On a completely different matter, I see that Ingrid writes ‘get flag’. I always thought the expression was ‘get flak’, as in german anti-aircraft guns, but I realize that might be a completely silly idea. My knowledge of English idiom is probably far worse than Ingrid’s, so is there anybody who knows the truth?


ogmb 08.08.08 at 12:47 pm

@28: It’s <a href=””flak.


ogmb 08.08.08 at 12:48 pm


Kmack 08.08.08 at 12:53 pm

I agree that the survey is dubiously designed–unless perhaps the point was only to compare general attitudes about the way things are now vs. traditionally re work and gender.

Yet I don’t quite understand how getting male partners to do more domestic work could be such a major, intractable issue–that is, for women with a real range of options. Presumably, women for whom it is a major issue could choose to enter relationships with men who share this value; or these women could opt out of having male partners, which in a country like the U. S. may be no barrier to having or rearing a child. Or, as CB suggests, women can in effect reject the imposition of traditional gender norms by greatly lowering the birth rate.

So I wonder if many women–those with real options–don’t value so highly the domestic work issue, at least not nearly so highly as is often claimed. Men who value gender equality obviously are out there, and domestically-oriented fathers have gained some measure of acceptance among the liberal minded. I don’t get the sense that such men are especially prized, even among the women in question.

Btw, @ 7: as an African American man, I can assure you that men like me don’t “control society.” Of course, this is not to deny that I/we, like other men generally, are “homework avoiders.”


ogmb 08.08.08 at 12:53 pm

And of course one should add the obvious: opinions should not be confused with facts. Certainly not when it concerns such ideology-sensitive issues as gender inequality.

I also see no evidence in the press blurb that the researchers did that.


A-ro 08.08.08 at 1:11 pm

I wonder if we’re stuck with women in the “traditional” childcare role because of path dependance. Here’s my logic (which applies only to heterosexual couples with children)*:

1) Breastfeeding is a little better for kids than bottle feeding, and women have the breasts.

2) Bottle feeding can be done, but there are barriers (for formula, health is the barrier, for pumped breast milk, hassle). Not insurmountable barriers, but enough to get more people to choose breastfeeding.

3) After the time when breastfeeding ends, the parents are on apparently equal footing in terms of their availability to stay at home with the kids. Nevertheless, one of them (the breastfeeding mother) has just taken some time with reduced or no work outside the home. This places another barrier to women working, because many families will make more money if the man is the outside-the-home worker.

4) These barriers will naturally make egalitarian couples at least a little more likely to have the woman stay at home. But this skew toward women at home, if large enough, is self-reinforcing because now women at home seems more “normal,” which, sadly, matters to a lot of human beings.

In conclusion: the egalitarian ideal of 50/50 stay-at-home responsibility is unlikely to be achieved because of breasts (the cause of, and solution to, all of our problems).

* I can’t be the first person to have thought of this. In fact, I assume someone has thought of this, and someone else has already destroyed this line of reasoning somehow. Please let me know how this plays out!


Ingrid Robeyns 08.08.08 at 1:33 pm

ogmb: you are interpreting my post in a weird way, and in any case you are attributing to me intentions which I did not have and do not have. Period.
Regarding #32, same thing: I did not suggest, nor did I intend to suggest, that the researchers said so or even thought so: it is just a remark from me that I think is useful to keep in mind when reading such a press release. That’s all – and writing these kinds of remarks is what bloggers do.


eszter 08.08.08 at 1:38 pm

Ingrid, interesting choice of post heading, was it purposeful that you didn’t include anything about “people think that” in there? That is, were you purposefully trying to play up the particular approach of the study?

A lot of women as well as men play into the stereotypes that men should be the ones out their earning money while women should be the ones taking care of the kids at home. That doesn’t make it the right way, it just means that in that particular environment both policies and social norms encourage that setup.

How much work has been done on issues of this sort among homosexual couples? I’ve always thought that would be an interesting comparison.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.08.08 at 1:43 pm

A-ro: I agree that breastfeeding plays a causal role, as does child birth and birthleave; but there are many other factors that also play a role and that are men-made, not nature-made (the effects of prejudice and the interplay with social norms @ #1 – for a good book that summarised the ‘hard evidence’ from social and cognitive psyhology, see Virginia Valian’s Why so Slow?,.). Preferences are a very tricky causal factor to deal with, since it truly is unclear to what extent the distribution of preferences between men and women in a just society would be different; we know there is quite some preference formation that is, again, men-made, but it seems plausible that some of it isn’t. From evidence from our current societes, which are deeply gendered, we simply can’t know deduce how these distributions would be. So my view on all this is that a truly 50/50 division of all work (market/paid vs. non-market/unpaid) will unlikely ever be the case. But in a just society, the gap would be much, much smaller than what we currently have.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.08.08 at 1:48 pm

Eszter, of course the title refers to “people think that…” but I simply wrote the shorter title (yesterday, in a hurry) and didn’t look back at it.

Clearly, anybody who has read my posts in the past knows that I myself wholeheartedly disagree with this statement in general, and only would think this statement could be true under certain circumstances, such as two parents who are both working very long and inflexible hours, and are not mentally present when at home, etc. etc.

As for lesbian couples — I read some research some years back, and lesbians are more egalitarian in their household division of labour. I haven’t read any studies about their opinions, though.


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 2:02 pm

A-ro ,

I think the breast pump is a hassle argument is a bit exaggerated (especially after six months given data about the decrease in breast feeding after this point), but let us say it has a significant impact. What percentage does it explain given a formally egalitarian parental leave context from which to operate, like say Sweden. My guess is that physical barriers are not going to explain very much of the 80/20 split for the 13+ months of parental leave .


ogmb 08.08.08 at 2:14 pm

Ingrid, if your goal was to clarify that research into attitudes is different from research into facts, what exactly is the second paragraph about? Clearly a finding of “a majority of Americans think evolution is bogus” is different from “evolution is bogus”, but no refinement of survey questions will ever get you from the first to the second.


lemuel pitkin 08.08.08 at 2:19 pm

IN countries where men have equal entitlements to women for parental leave (like in the NL) it is still women who overwhelmingly take it.

As I understand it, one solution to this has been to explicitly reserve some leave time for *fathers*, as opposed to allowing any caregiver to use it. Which suggests there may be a tension between the goals of (1) accomodating a ide range of family forms and (2) encouraging a more equal division of childcare labor between the sexes.

It seems like in practice, a purely neutral family leave policy will often end up reinforcing women’s role as primary caregivers — even if provision is made for a second caregiver, it maay well end up being a grandmother or other female relative. Whereas leave and otehr family policies that explicitly start from the premise that the typical family is made up of a father and a mother, can mroe directly encourage men to take a greater role in childcare.

Ingrid, do you think there’s anything to this?


Dave 08.08.08 at 2:35 pm

One might hypothesise, in the light of other facts such as the overwhelming preponderance of women over men in the pre-school childcare and primary schooling sectors [in the UK at least, how about other major economies?], that there are some problems of gender inequality that are NOT going to be solved any day before the revolution – much as there are some problems of general social inequality of which the same can be said.

Compared to the problems of getting people to change the innermost structures of their daily lives and identities – which is what we are talking about – the battle to make, for example, overt racism intolerable is a piece of cake. And I say that in the full knowledge that that latter battle is far from being won.

One salutes those few societies which may have made substantially more progress in this direction than have, say, the USA, France, the UK; while noting that the ‘model’ societies [NL, Sweden, Finland, etc – any others?] are much, much smaller. Such ‘models’ maybe need to be appreciated more as ‘outliers’. The mean, and indeed mode, of behaviour lies elsewhere. Not because it should, but because it does.


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 2:44 pm


How does the bigness of the UK make it not able to adopt policies like those in Sweden or the Netherlands?


lemuel pitkin 08.08.08 at 2:49 pm

But Dave, don’t the enormous changes in gender roles and relations in the past few decades suggest just the opposite? A generation ago, when my father started medical school, there was exactly one woman in his class of 100 or so. Many law sschools, and not a few elite colelges, didn’t even admit women. Now they make up the majority of students at most such schools. Both Eric Hobsbawm and David Frum, who don’t agree on much, agree that the transformation in the role of women is the most important social change of the past 50 years, dwarfing anything technological. And in the US, at least, the gender gap in earnings, employment, etc. has shrunk much more in recent decades than the racial gap has. So if we know anything about gender roles, it’s that in modern societies they are malleable in the extreme – no revolution needed.


A-ro 08.08.08 at 3:28 pm

aaron_m and Ingrid:

you’re right, the factors I bring (breast feeding, etc.) up don’t come close to explaining the current disparities. But the actual natural barriers to equality (women need to recover from childbearing and do the breast feeding), exacerbated by the resulting work experience/momentum disparity, plus the feedback loop from those factors making women-at-home seem a bit more “normal” surely must get us more inequality than, say, 53/47. But who knows what the number is?

In the end, I am not making a particularly earth-shattering point: while we can and should do much better, it’s hard to know how far toward 50/50 we can get before we reach a natural limit.

Thanks for the comments, and for the Valian book reference. I’ll check it out.


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 3:39 pm


I suspect that if we ever get to a world of 60-40 that will easily do away with the labour market effects we see today and that most will find such a split to be highly egalitarian (i.e. given the physical differences).


LogicGuru 08.08.08 at 3:43 pm

I’d have loved to be a Stay At Home Mom–if I could have had a guarantee that I’d NEVER have to work outside the home.

That deal is no longer available because marriage is no longer a guarantee of lifetime financial support for women. The deal is you can have 10 or so years off to do child care and then, when the kids are grown, or semi-grown, back to the labor force where, after this hiatus, you’re off the career track.

This is the worst of all possible jobs for women: two jobs and no career. First you do the drudge work of child care without the reward of retirement, a time when you don’t have to deal with the kids anymore but get to stay home, decorate your house and enjoy your leisure. Instead, when the drudgery load has lightened at home you’re shoved back into the labor force where as a woman returning to work in middle age you end up doing boring pink-collar shit work–even if it is, for our kind of people, genteel pink-collar shit work.

If men want women to stay home with the kids when they’re young, they have to offer the deal women used to get: lifetime financial support with no obligation to work outside the home EVER. I’d have jumped at that but it wasn’t on offer.


ajay 08.08.08 at 4:09 pm

when the drudgery load has lightened at home you’re shoved back into the labor force

presumably you meant to write “when the drudgery load has lightened at home you rejoin the labour force of your own free will, because you wanted a better lifestyle than a single income could support”.


bianca steele 08.08.08 at 4:46 pm

Women generally don’t get dismissed for not having high enough salaries, for “not being aggressive enough”

This is getting off-track, but I have heard this from supervisors. I’ve heard it as well from same-age co-workers, sometimes, in a context that could have been related to dating colleagues. I’d guess heterosexual men who’d consider their profession so masculine that they wouldn’t consider dating a colleague would equally not consider the question whether their colleague-girlfriend was someone they could respect as a colleague.


virgil xenophon 08.08.08 at 4:59 pm

LogicGuru hits the nail on the head from a woman’s point of view–there are a lot of technical professions (from Nursing to IT) where even three years away from the job makes one virtually unemployable at the level of one’s former status due to the pace of changing technology. And then there is the prejudice of employers who hesitate to hire women (not as great as it once was) because of fear of loss of the woman’s skills and cost of finding and training an adequate replacement if she subsequently decides to again elect the “mommy track.”

Both Novakant and Bicycle Hussein Paladin (yes, I know, I am hopelessly derivative) are also right on target about the problems that men face. The stay-at-home man is usually considered a “ne’er do well” by men and women alike. One author whose name escapes me has commented that in terms of what is regarded as socially acceptable, women have three choices: (1) work full time; (2) stay at home; (3) work some and stay at home some. Men also have three choices: (1) work full time; (2) work full time; (3) work full time. Should a woman start her own business and fail, she is not thought the less of my most–either men or women. But if a man fails, he is seen as a lesser person by almost everyone–for all the reasons mentioned previously here.

Now I full well realize that the standard feminist retort to all of this
is that since the current social construct was created, in the main, by men, that they have only themselves to blame. I would agree somewhat–but only somewhat, The inescapable “fact” is that if one goes far enough back in time, the unalterable aspects of human biology and man-woman differences (both physiological and psychological) rise to even greater prominence in answering the question as to why the enduring “patriarchal” construct is so, well, enduring–even to this very day. And no matter how diluted by recent changes in the professional status of women, i.e., why the construct is not totally a consciously willed one. When he was still on TV, Phil Donahue,on his own show about this same subject, asked his audience of predominately middle-class women how many of them were married to a man who had less education than they did. I’ll leave it to the readership here to guess how many hands went up…….


Dave 08.08.08 at 5:33 pm

@43: sure, but that’s a transformation in what public institutions can be made to do. The next step, into how the majority of people actually organise their lives, is the hard one, and the one that hasn’t been completed. One might liken it, to return to the race analogy, to the as-yet-untaken step of the majority of long-term sexual relationships being “interracial”. It could happen, there’s no logical reason it won’t, but it hasn’t, and I’m not holding my breath…

@42: err…because there are more people who don’t agree that those should be the new policies? Actually, that wasn’t my point, I was merely stressing that, as a matter of fact, it IS these smaller societies, which are very unusual in all sorts of ways on the global scale, that are held up as role-models; which is all very well, and I agree they should be, but given that they ARE unusual in so many ways, how are people to be obliged to act like them?


bicycle Hussein paladin 08.08.08 at 5:36 pm

@ bianca steele #48, I guess it’s more a matter of degree, rather than an absolute difference. I think what you say is true about dating colleagues, though I’d say there is still some difference in how much these judgments are applied to men and to women. But for colleagues, their reputations as such are a big part of how you know them. When dating people outside one’s professional circle, then it’s more about how people judge each other’s personalities, and the expectations for men to show signs of material success, strength, aggressiveness, &c. are much greater.

I could see how more dating within professional circles could reduce these differences, but I expect it would also favor these stereotypically masculine characteristics in men and women, both.


mpowell 08.08.08 at 5:38 pm

I think there is a lot of path dependency here, but it’s not due to the factors A-ro identifies. It’s a historical path dependency that ultimately leads to the cultural factors frequently identified as well as the ones that Aaron_m mention; these may not earn too many men sympathy with women, but how many men do you expect to try and push in an egalitarian direction when the very people they are trying to help are pushing in the other direction?. Virgil also brings up another good point, which is that current balance pretty much screws women later in life.

The interesting thing about a study like this is that I wouldn’t expect people to think that women working full-time is a great thing. With where our society is at, I don’t think it is much of the time. The problem is that the fact that social conditions cause this to be the case then lead people to regard working women more poorly and reinforce those social conditions. A friend of mine is married and his wife is expecting soon. Her career trajectory is as a managerial type in a big company. He does technical work and is currently contracting at a very good rate. Her career would be hugely hampered by taking maternity leave. His, not at all. So he’s going to be the one taking off work. But the response from their Texan families will be interesting to say the least…


Ingrid Robeyns 08.08.08 at 7:50 pm

Lemuel Pitkin @40:
It seems like in practice, a purely neutral family leave policy will often end up reinforcing women’s role as primary caregivers
I think this is correct – and we have seen this with many social policies in different European countries related to care leaves that both men and women have been entitled too (not just leave for children, but also for caring for seriously ill or dying older family members, for example).

Virgil Xenophon @49:
Men also have three choices: (1) work full time; (2) work full time; (3) work full time
I’m happy to report that this is definitely not the case in academia in the Netherlands — many young fathers, and even other men who have strong commitments outside their work, work 4 days a week. I know a male professor (without children) who works four days a week because he is high up in the leadership of a small church. Whether for children or for other reasons, working part-time is a perfectly acceptable option. I am not sure it is easy for all fathers – I doubt it is for people on a fast-carreer-track in the more competitive-commercial companies – but it certainly is for those on non-fast-carreer tracks in companies and in government jobs.


aaron_m 08.08.08 at 8:02 pm


This idea that ‘sure Sweden can do it but nobody else can’ seems to me to be an easy out in these kinds of debates and advanced mostly because of its strategic value as an argument (i.e. how can I deny that Sweden is small or that other countries fail to live up to its family politics), but rarely well supported empirically (i.e. demonstrating the supposed link between some specialness of Swedes and their ability to have decent public policy). Obviously the more people argument is a bit odd given that the demos in the UK agrees to as much if not more public policy than the demos in Sweden.

I know there is a literature along these lines for specific elements, especially the combination of high tax levels and economic growth (lots of debate there though). However this does not support the broad brush you are using. I still do not see how you support the empirical claim, and I wish people would stop putting forth these kinds of claims as if they are truisms because the Swedes are really starting to believe them. The Swedes and the rest, ugh! Look out for the exaggerate sense of pride.


clew 08.08.08 at 9:13 pm

On the idea that men can’t slow-track at work to take up a share of the childcare ,because their “attractiveness as sexual or life partners [is] tied up with their economic success.” —

Not applicable to the men in question, who by definition have already succeeded as sexual partners, and are facing the choice of being life partners or merely checkbook partners.

Of course, there is some suspicion that women who can support themselves and kids alone are more likely to leave a bad marriage; so a man who expects his marriage to become bad, but wants the option to keep it (???), should perhaps seek this division of labor. I try to think better of men than to assume they’re actually planning for this.


leederick 08.08.08 at 9:42 pm

I worry about the sort of family friendly policies inspired by feminist views on the distribution of carework. The policies we’re talking about are designed to support a particular demographic – middle-aged, couples, both working – which is among the most privileged in society. We really don’t need to save these people from the horrors of having to look after kids. And the last thing we want to do is subsidise their affluence.

If we’re going to run expensive social programs we need to target groups who really are disadvantaged – the young, the old, the unemployed, and single parents. You know, the groups that traditionally received state support before fortunate people started pork barrelling. Saving employed, partnered, middle-aged women from having to do too much housework really isn’t that noble a cause, and certainly doesn’t warrant the money or effort that’s being thrown at it. They really should be grateful that that’s their biggest problem.


Righteous Bubba 08.08.08 at 9:49 pm

The policies we’re talking about are designed to support a particular demographic – middle-aged, couples, both working – which is among the most privileged in society.

Also kids, who have no money at all and no say at all.


Righteous Bubba 08.08.08 at 9:50 pm

I should add that I disagree somewhat with what I quoted above; it’s news to a lot of middle-aged couples that are both working that they are the most priveleged members of society.


leederick 08.08.08 at 10:14 pm

“it’s news to a lot of middle-aged couples that are both working that they are the most priveleged members of society.”

I’m sure it is. But they’re certainly in a better situation than they were when they were young, or will be when they are old, or would be if they were single or were made unemployed. And they’re certainly more fortunate than the people who do find themselves in those situations. For most people the economic situation when they’re middle aged, coupled and working is as good as it will ever get. We should face up to this, and the state should support people when they’re at the most vulnerable stages of their lives – not the most fortunate.


Righteous Bubba 08.08.08 at 10:24 pm

For most people the economic situation when they’re middle aged, coupled and working is as good as it will ever get.

But that is not the same as “fortunate” or “wealthy” or “privileged”. Also helping those who are less fortunate doesn’t exclude action taken on behalf of middle-aged couples with families.


aaron_m 08.09.08 at 7:38 am


On the strictly utilitarian theory of attractiveness and social status there would be no reason for hooked up men and women to comb their hair, shave, go the gym, put on make-up, and all the other things we do to keep ourselves doing as well as we can with the attractiveness/status interconnections.

On the theory you advance the processes of socialisation that lead individuals to perceive their worth to be based in X would simply cease to have an impact once an individual achieved some life-plan goal. That just seems widely implausible.


Dave 08.09.08 at 8:22 am

@60: but a dual-income professional couple – the kind who are in a position to agonise about these choices – will have, by definition, a household income far above the median; they will likely be in the top 10% of earners in a modern industrial economy. What other kind of definition of privileged do you want, except maybe ‘someone who has lots more than me’? Even those who are not ‘professional’ will be better off than the mean.


novakant 08.09.08 at 9:06 am

We should face up to this, and the state should support people when they’re at the most vulnerable stages of their lives – not the most fortunate.

Oh great, let’s alienate middle class professionals who are working their @sses off while raising children by making their lives even harder. See, if they were privileged, they wouldn’t need to rely on two full-time incomes to make ends meet and after expenses for children, rent/house, insurance, cars etc. there’s generally not much left, in fact many of them are in debt.


aaron_m 08.09.08 at 11:46 am

Have to agree with novakant,

Good benefits for young parents has got to be the best way to get broad middle class support for a more redistributive political order, and at the larger scale is surely nearly necessary for the kind of politics advanced in the best existing welfare states.


Adam 08.09.08 at 5:11 pm


Amen, brother.

Also. The claim by some that male socialization is for male benefit is outrageous. Male socialization is in accord with the demands imposed by the historical male role as primary wage-earner. Do not make the mistake of privileging traits (gender) over situation (economics).

So long as masculinity is defined by professional success, expect that men will be very unwilling to risk professional success by taking time off. Every comment regarding the hit women take when they try to re-enter the workforce applies to men as well.

The definition of masculinity is enforced by women as much as by other men, if not more so. Female competition for male attention is a form of status competition. Men that do not conform to male gender roles are undesirable objects and women that accept them accept lower status in the process. If a man is 1) tall and 2) built then he’ll be a desirable object until he’s about 30 – women older than that will be looking for professional success as well.

Changing the definition of masculinity is central to achieving equality in the workplace. Redefining female status competition is central to that effort.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.10.08 at 5:21 am

Adam, I agree with the importance of dominant masculinity norms as you point out. But a similar story can be told about femininity norms – a woman who is agentic, strong, assertive, doesn’t invest in typical feminine looks, etc. etc. will also be disadvantaged both in the workplace and in the realm of relationships. I think both men and women who reinforce strong social femininity and masculinity norms are part of the cause of the gender injustices. But it is easier, in my view, to clarify the injustice-creating effects of institutional properties than of those masculinity/femininity gender norms. Most ‘ordinary’ people did not take courses or read books on gender identities and gender norms, and may not even realise the full extent of the working of these norms…


Brett Bellmore 08.10.08 at 11:31 am

“Yet I don’t quite understand how getting male partners to do more domestic work could be such a major, intractable issue”

Has anybody here actually read Adam Smith’s parable of the pin factory? Equal income and domestic work by both partners is inefficient; Both the jobs and the household get done worse, compared to one partner specializing in one, and the other specializing in the other. From this economic perspective, you’d expect either stay at home moms and working dads, OR stay at home dads, and working moms, to prevail as a social model over equal shares of both tasks. With, as noted, the women being the ones capable of breast feeding.

As well, I think there’s a barely unspoken assumption here that men and women are psychologically identical beings in cosmetically different bodies, rather than members of a sexually dimorphic species. We may be “equal”, in the sense of moral agency, but we are scarcely the same, and it’s rather silly to assume a priori that, all else being equal, we’d end up in identical roles.

Couple even a little sexual dimorphism with the economic superiority of specialization, and you’re going to get men and women filling different roles.


bicycle Hussein paladin 08.10.08 at 3:53 pm

@65, I couldn’t agree more.
@66, I couldn’t agree more.

To me one of the big issues here (or, the big neglected issue) is the need to recognize women’s agency in the sex-gender system and that men also have things to complain about. That’s not saying that the system disadvantages men relative to women, but that our thinking about it should also be informed by empathy for men’s situation as well. I think people realize this in theory, but it seems to drop out of the main narratives and needs to be brought up anew in so many of these discussions, along with all the necessary qualifications and hedging to reassure that we’re not just trying to derail the debate with false equivalences and such.


Regina 08.10.08 at 4:50 pm

That only means that men should pay MORE attention to thier families. Even to become homestay daddy if it’s neccessary.


Adam 08.10.08 at 7:52 pm

@Brett Biltmore

About one in three women earn more than their spouse. By your logic those spouses should be stay at home dads.

I will take you Adam Smith just-so-stories seriously when you advocate that they stay home.


Brett Bellmore 08.10.08 at 10:06 pm

“By your logic those spouses should be stay at home dads.”

Were they economically rational, yes, they would be.


virgil xenophon 08.11.08 at 1:55 am

But of course economic rationality often has nothing to do with it, as
Kieran Healy’s choice of titles infers in the latest topic posted here (Sociology Refutes Economics[Again])–the tides of the cultural mores of society all too often running overpoweringly against the logic of economics.


Roy Belmont 08.11.08 at 5:03 am

Economic rationality is like being a well-behaved bus passenger. While the bus crashes through the guard rail and becomes airborne.
Over what you may well ask.


Roy Belmont 08.11.08 at 5:36 am

I’ll follow this parrot of shapes and mock it
copying what copies me
for the like to stumble on the like
and I would not see it, nor it see me.


magistra 08.11.08 at 7:39 am

I think there are increasing numbers of British men who would be willing to slow-track in order to have more time with their family. But part of the problem is that expectations of work commitment have expanded. You can easily be on the slow-track now in many professional jobs if you just work your contracted hours, let alone asking for them to be cut. And there is also a reasonable worry that when the next round of redundancies come (and in many workplaces they can come even when the economy’s OK) that the slow-trackers will be targeted first.

I think another important factor in the UK is that the demands made by schools on parents are increasing. My child’s infant school is always wanting parents to go in for shared reading, attend special school events, prepare things to take in etc, much more than I remember when I was a child. This kind of ‘work’ is very fiddly to fit round a full-time job and is particularly likely to cause the kind of generalised low-level stress to the whole household on a regular basis that makes people wonder whether full-time employment by both parents is really a good idea.


virgil xenophon 08.11.08 at 9:24 am

Boy, I fully agree with Magrista’s post. My childhood (I’m 64) was almost entirely devoid of such things–and I was the son of college professors and attended a Univ. Lab School on campus. No helicopter parents in my day–we were left pretty much on our own with the unstated expectations by our parents that we would progress apace. And of course security/crime concerns were almost non-existent, so we were left to play pretty much by ourselves and to transport ourselves from A to B via bike, public transport or walking as the case may be. Demands on parent’s time was consequently minimal. About the only events impinging on parent’s time being Christmas plays and parent-teacher conferences.


virgil xenophon 08.11.08 at 9:53 am

PS to my above post: In my day it also was not considered practically child abuse and a social crime by either we children or school administrators if the demands of time did not allow for the attendance by parents at each and every sporting event–such “lapses” today raising eyebrows and furrowing foreheads all around with parents guilt simply oozing from every pore if a single child’s event is missed and the child feeling compelled to search out the nearest psychological counseling to help them overcome feelings of “abandonment.” Hence, today’s parents practically relive their childhood through their own children, often spending almost as much time entangled/associated with their child’s pursuits as the child himself.


Dave 08.11.08 at 10:05 am

@65, 66, 68 – yes, indeed, and once upon a time feminism was about getting people to think about how much better it could be if we rethought all those gender-role-enforcing attitudes held by both sexes. And, once upon a time, feminism held within its ranks the poossibility that one might argue, seriously, for structural socio-economic change to make such shifts of attitude easier. But not now, oh no, how old-fashioned that would be.

@76, 77 – it worked better without the visible descent towards hyperbole in the second post.


virgil xenophon 08.11.08 at 10:26 am

Sorry Dave, half a fifth of “Rhum” will do that to a fellow–it’s 3: am here on the West coast in the US. I would add as a buttress to Magrista’s argument however, that large amounts of homework were almost unknown in grades 1-6 in my day as compared to today–and I went to a Univ. Lab school! Today’s volume of take-home work also puts increasing demands on many parent’s time, as they become increasingly involved in assisting with homework. Hence they all too often lack the flexibility to take on increasing workloads in their own working lives.


Dave 08.11.08 at 11:33 am

It is deeply ironic, I agree, that producing education today seems to require so much more effort than it did a generation ago, despite our alleged proliferation of ‘technical support’… and the education produced still doesn’t seem to hit the spot…

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