Is the idea that men should have the same choices as women when it comes to balancing career and family the last remaining taboo in the gender revolution? Glen Poole examines the evidence.
What’s the biggest remaining taboo when it comes to male and female gender roles in 21st Century Britain? Is it women being soldiers or men being midwives? No, it’s neither, because while 11% of people think women shouldn’t be soldiers and 16% think men shouldn’t be midwives, there is ZERO per cent support amongst the British public for mums working more than their male partners.
That’s correct ZERO per cent.
And this statistic doesn’t come from a straw-poll taken down my local pub or a Mickey Mouse survey of 100 shoppers in the Milton Keynes branch of Mothercare last Tuesday—this comes from the 30th British Social Attitudes survey, which is described as “a critical gauge of public opinion [which is] used by the Government, journalists, opinion formers and academics”.
So this isn’t a survey that makes a passing contribution to the public discourse on gender once a year, it’s a highly influential survey that informs the Government policies which shape our everyday lives as men and women. According to the survey’s authors, the “gender role revolution”, which took off if the second half of the 20th Century has been matched by a marked change in public attitudes since they began collecting data in the early Eighties.
In 1984, for example, 45 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women agreed with this statement: “A man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”. By 2012 only 13 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women agreed.
So is the sexual revolution complete?
If you think that the sexual revolution is all about transforming women’s roles and opportunities, then the job is all but done when it comes to public attitudes. Only 13% of people agree with the man-hunt-woman-cook approach to gender and it’s a belief that’s fading fast with each passing generation. In total, while 28% of those over 65 support the gendered division of labour, only 4% of 18-25 year olds share this view.
But before we chaps throw our bowler hats in the hair and join our womenfolk in a chorus of Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves, what about the question of gender that is so taboo, that is doesn’t even warrant a passing mention in the narrative of the British Social Attitudes survey? I’m talking about the radical idea that dads might earn less than their partners.
You see, the idea that women take sole responsibility for home and family may well have disappeared and yet women, on average, still take prime responsibility for the home. This idea is covered quite extensively in the survey under the heading “attitudes have changed but have behaviours?” which provides the following factoids:
- 6 in 10 women consider they do more than their fair share of the household work
- Both men and women agree, that women spend much more time a week on average, both on household work and looking after family members
Is this the last big gender taboo?
But nowhere in the survey does anyone ask if women do their fair share of paid work. In fact the survey simply accepts the culturally held given that when it comes to family life, men will always be the primary breadwinners.
So while there has been a seismic shift away from the belief that women should be solely responsible for taking care of home and family—any movement away from the belief that women should the primary homemakers, while men should be the main breadwinners, is imperceptible.
This shows up in two key questions in the report. Firstly in questions about attitudes towards parental leave, which asked how mums and dads should share this entitlement. What they discovered was that 59% of us think women should take all or most of the parental leave entitlement, while 22% think it should be shared equally. The rest of us either haven’t got an opinion or think that nobody should be entitled to parental leave. But what about, dads taking all or most of the parental leave, well:
ZERO percent thought dads should take all or most parental leave
The second area of the survey that reveals a total lack of support amongst the British public for the idea that mums should “lean in” and take primary responsibility for paid work while dads “lean out” and take primary responsibility for the home and kids, is found in the answers to this question:
“What is the best and least desirable way for a family with child under school age to organise family and work life by sex.”
What this question reveals is possibly the most deeply ingrained, sexist belief, that is held by both men and women and impacts the life choices available to every young man and woman in the country.
In 21st Century Britain this is how we still think about gender roles:
- 69% of us think dad should be the primary earner
- 9% of us think mum and dad should share the earning responsibility equally
- 19% of us are undecided
- ZERO percent think mum should be the primary earner
There is very little difference between men’s and women’s attitudes on this question:
- 71% of men and 68% of women think dad should be the primary earner
- 9% of men and 10% of women think think mum and dad should share the earning responsibility equally
- ZERO percent of men and women think mum should be the primary earner
What choice do men have?
What’s striking about this survey (apart from the fact that it fails to even question these ingrained beliefs that men should be the primary earner), is the lack of choice available to men, compared with women.
For women, there is fairly even support for the three main options of motherhood, which are to stay at home, to work part time or to work full time. As the survey reveals:
- 33% of us think mums should stay at home until the children start school
- 43% think mums should work part time until the children start school
- 28% think mums should work full time once the kids start school
This range of choices simply isn’t available for most men, so much so, that the question of whether dads should stay at home, work part-time or work full-time isn’t even asked in the survey. What we can read from other questions in the survey is that:
- 73% of us think dads should work full time
- 5% of us think dads should work part time
- ZERO percent of us think dads should stay at home full time
When you take this into account, it’s little wonder that there’s a “gender pay gap”; that dads get sidelined from their children’s lives when parents are separated and that men don’t do their “fair share” of unpaid work.
So how do we respond to this? Do we demand equal opportunities and choices for men? Do we demand that women start to do their fair share of paid work? Or do we simply accept that men and women have different and unequal desires when it comes prioritising career and family? We’d love to hear your views…….
—Photo credit: Flickr/Antony Pranata
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
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