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Should You Change the Gender Roles in Your Marriage Because of a Study?

Last week researchers at the University of British Columbia released a study that looked at parents, children and gender roles. One of the key findings of the study, or at least the one splashed around the news, was that fathers who do a greater share of the domestic chores have daughters who aspire to more male dominated, higher paying careers. So if dads want their daughters to be engineers or scientists or stock brokers instead of nurses or teachers or (gasp!) stay at home moms, they should do the laundry and the dishes more often.

Research Results as a Plea or a Threat

Women across the Internet shared the study in a desperate plea for some more help around the house -- "See honey -- if you won't do it for me, at least do it for our daughter." Others were upset by the implication that the division of labour in their homes could be harmful to their daughters. As an example, Alex Durrell from I Don't Blog, But If I Did, wrote:

I’m not a stay-at-home mother because I lack ambition. It isn’t my father’s fault (since I don’t think I ever saw him once clean our house) that I’m not a doctor or engineer. My husband not cleaning up after himself won’t affect my daughter’s chances of “success”. What total garbage research it is to simplify such a complicated dynamic like this.

I am the person who spends 95% of her time in this house. It stands to reason that the majority of the household jobs fall to me. I certainly expect that my husband picks up after himself and supports me and does work, too, but he isn’t asking me to make the money we spend — we’re a partnership, each doing different jobs to make sure the machine of our family life runs smoothly. And if that feels unfair, unjust or plain frustrating at any time, we sit down and discuss it. We are equals. This is what my children see.

People who read my blog know that I'm a big proponent of equally shared parenting, of career minded women, and men who do their share in raising a family. They know that if a mother is looking for a way to share the load more fairly with her partner, that I'll provide ideas, advice and models that might work. I don't think that women need to accept that they'll do more of the housework just because that is what usually happens. But my readers also know that I support each family's right to choose what works for them, whether that is one parent (mother or father) staying home while the other works, both parents working full-time, or both parents working part-time.

Image credit: pasukaru76 on flickr

Looking Behind the Headlines

People who read my blog also know that I don't take headlines, especially ones about research studies, at face value. Headlines are written for clicks, not to educate people. So when I read the news about this study last week, I didn't jump to write about it right away. Instead, I contacted the lead researcher Alyssa Croft and asked her to send me a copy of her paper and then I read it.

I'll admit I had some questions (or possibly assumptions) going into it. The one question in my mind as I read the study was "did it control for the mother's career?". Sure, it is nice to say that girls whose fathers do more housework are more likely to want to be scientists, but is that because their father is doing housework or is that because their mother is a scientist? Isn't it possible that women who have more demanding, non-traditional, higher paying careers also need to have a partner who is willing to take on more of the household chores? That is what Sheryl Sandberg told us, after all. If we want to 'lean in', we need to make our partner a true partner.

I'll start by saying that I was glad to see a research study that looked at the impact of fathers on their children. Most studies seem to find a way to blame the mother while completely ignoring the father, so this study was a breath of fresh air from that perspective. 

What did I learn? Here are a few of the key research findings (from the paper, not the news headlines):

  • Boys are always more likely to express interest in traditionally male careers, whereas girls career choices are dependent on their father's (but not necessarily their mother's) attitude toward and contribution to household tasks.

In both the mother-child and the father-child analyses, boys nominated more gender-stereotypic careers than did girls, both ps < .001 (see Table 6). Although no other effects were significant in the mother-child analysis, within the father-child analysis several effects pointed to the unique role that fathers might play in predicting daughters’ occupational aspirations. [...] In each case, only daughters’ and not sons’ aspirations were predicted by their fathers’ variables. Daughters reported aspiring toward more stereotypic future occupations to the degree that their fathers: a) explicitly endorsed a traditional division of household tasks, β = .43, p = .003, b) had stronger implicit associations of women with home and men with work, β = .30, p = .016, and c) reported contributing less to household tasks and childcare, β = -.41, p = .017.

  • There are several reasons why fathers who are more involved at home could influence daughter's career aspirations.

There are several possible explanations for these findings between fathers and their daughters. Fathers could be modeling future potential mates, signaling to their daughters that they can expect men to help at home, thereby allowing women more time for work. Alternatively, those fathers who contribute more at home might have more opportunities to suggest masculine pursuits that their daughters then adopt. This enables them to be gatekeepers to their daughters’ interest in counter-stereotypic roles.

  • The extent to which mothers' careers impact their daughters' career aspirations is not fully understood (This is the one that I would like to see studied further, as per my introductory comments above).

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the most relevant third variable explanation for the relationships observed among dads and their daughters are the beliefs and behaviors of mothers in these families. For example, dads who engage in more household work may be married to women who work more outside the home or who endorse more counter-stereotypical beliefs about gender roles. Although we were unable to collect enough data from both parents to properly examine these possibilities, analysis of the subsample of 68 parent dyads in our dataset, revealed only modest covariation among gender role variables (see supplementary online materials) and mothers’ variables did not strongly predict daughters’ occupational aspirations. While future research is surely needed, these aspects of our data speak against the possibility that the findings among our father sample are better explained by the beliefs or behaviors of their wives.

What Use is the Study?

At a base level, I think the study and its conclusion are interesting. The conclusion was framed as follows in the study:

If our assumed causal model is accurate, fathers likely play an important role in modeling a more egalitarian future for their daughters by their contributions at home. Our results suggest that when fathers espouse and enact a more equal distribution of domestic work, their daughters more easily envision balancing work with family and having a less gender-stereotypic career.

I do think it can be one variable that helps explain the choices people make and it is a useful data point from that perspective. I've also seen other studies that men without sisters are more likely to have done chores when they were growing up. So, if you married a man who has sisters, you've probably already got an uphill battle when it comes to getting him to share the housework. That is also an interesting finding, I think and perhaps a marker that you should talk about expectations regarding housework before you get married (or maybe even live together before you commit long term to see how things work out). But I don't think that it means you need to screen out potential love interests based on whether they have sisters or not and I don't think couples need to decide who does how much housework based on which career they hope their daughter will pursue.

Beyond simply being an interesting finding, I do think that the study has value in further confirming that you can't be what you can't see. As I wrote in a post on the under- and misrepresentation of women in the media, role models are important.

For better or for worse, most people are not trailblazers.

That doesn't mean that they have no potential. But it does mean that they need role models. They need to see other people, often people like them, succeeding at the type of thing they want to do. They need it for inspiration, leadership, paths to follow, and to help them believe that they can succeed.

If a girl's mother is a stay-at-home mom and does most of the housework and the neighbours, mom's friends, and aunts are also all stay-at-home moms, then that is what that girl's world view will be based on. Later she'll likely be exposed to teachers that are mostly women, but her exposure to women in other careers will be limited. However, if the family has a mixed group of friends and the girl has the opportunity to hear from female scientists and bankers and computer programmers on a regular basis (not just at a three hour "career day" in the ninth grade), then she'll have a different view of what is possible. Similarly, if there are men in her life who vacuum, bake, do laundry, make school lunches, and clean toilets, then she'll be more likely to envision a life where her male partner might do those things too.

Each family should do what works best for them, but parents should be mindful to expose their children to women in a variety of different careers (just as they should expose their children to people from different cultures, races, religions, sexual orientations, economic classes and more). Many feminist parents have been shocked the first time their child openly expresses gender assumptions (e.g. "girls like pretty colours like pink and purple and boys like ugly colours like brown and black"), but it is almost inevitable in our very gendered society that keeps reinforcing gender norms and roles at every turn.

Children's brains are sponges and they'll soak up what is around them, so be mindful to surround them with possibilities and variety as often as possible, especially if your home is reflective of the societal norm. 

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Reader Comments (10)

I think of all I've read about the study, the most important commentary has been your final sentence here. To me, that's the key.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Thank you for taking the time to contact the study authors and actually look at their research directly - and then taking the time to write about that for us.
I hope they get to do some follow up studies where they can look in greater depth at the family dynamics as you suggest.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTashaB

I also noticed that article when it was published on the CBC website. I remember reading it and dismissing it immediately. This is often a sign to look into it further. Delighted to see that you contacted the researcher and shared more details on your blog. I'm now wondering what the cultural dimension details of the families included in the study were. Canada is home to many families with diverse cultural identities. My curious mind is wondering what the impact the wider social context has on gender role identity development when raising children within an immigrant Canadian experience, an aboriginal Canadian experience, etc.

June 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlice Jungclaus

Wow!! I love this post! On a personal and professional level it is great to see how you take such an informative approach and open it up to endless possibilities of what works best for each family. And presenting children with endless possibilities. What makes a great family? Supporting their children in their authentic selves and teaching values which share kindness, friendship and connection in their community!

June 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen

I am sooooo curious about whether seeing dad work around the house more had any impact on boys and their goals in life ...

As others have already said, I tend to dismiss studies like this as soon as I see the headline. So I am glad you took the time to look deeper and present a more balanced view of the findings.

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterInder

in a wad of Homes where housework is almost equally divided the mother has a demanding career. I think that may have a greater impact on a girl's aspirations than seeing her father scrub a pot.

July 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDebi

I get this..... I grew up with a stay-at-home mother but my father shared in household chores..... He washed the dishes every night, did his own laundry and scrubbed the bathrooms and the kitchen floor on the weekend. Today, I am the mother of a 4-year-old, work full-time and recently completed my master's degree. My husband and I share all household duties. This study was about me...

July 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

The study leaves out interesting and perhaps telling variables: girls raised without fathers or girls raised without mothers.

"Similarly, if there are men in her life who vacuum, bake, do laundry, make school lunches, and clean toilets," they are more likely focused on the task, completing it, and finding a way to do the task more easily or efficiently: hence the vacuum cleaner, standing mixer, oven, washing machine, and indoor toilet.

Or are we so focused on the corner office and brass ring salaries that we forget other opportunities to innovate and inspire or just do a job well? Trash collectors are disproportionately male too . . .

January 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Very interesting! My husband had a working mom and his dad stayed home with them (and worked part time from home). No sisters either.... and, here, I just thought he was a nice guy! Hah.

August 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTash

I appreciate how you quote from the actual study and point out it’s wise to be skeptical of media spin. I also appreciate your point about the focus being on fathers. We do need to share the responsibilities and privileges of parenting and not leave one gender to handle the raising of offspring. We all benefit from well-raised kids. I also wonder, “What I can do today to model what I want my little ones to absorb?”

November 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Hohbach Scheetz

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