Is my belief that ‘things will be better for my daughters’ a delusion?

Is my belief that 'things will be better for my daughters' a delusion? thumbnail

“But it will be better for my daughters.” This is what I tell myself every time I read yet another report about the gender pay gap.

Or sexual harassment in the workplace. Or the poor representation of women in leadership roles. Or the increasing rates of poverty and homelessness among older women. Or violence against women. Or the continued legislative threat to our reproductive rights.

I tell myself that generations of women have laid the groundwork for real gender equality as distinct from the go-girl feminism co-opted to sell us junk we don’t need. We just need the dinosaurs to retire.

Executive offices and halls of power will then be filled with younger men who grew up with strong female role models. They will think women have as much right to the c-suite as they do, and will not block their entry. And with true equality in the workplace we will finally realise true equality in the home.

But if Stephanie Coontz’s New York Times article ‘Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?’ is anything to go by, I may be deluding myself. Big time.

Quoting research from the US General Social Survey, which has been capturing American attitudes about gender for 40 years, Coontz reported that men aged been 18 to 25 are less egalitarian than their fathers.

In response to the statement “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”, 58 per cent of young people said they agreed, up from 42 per cent in 1994.

Further, the 2014 General Social Survey revealed that an increasing number of millennials think that men should be the decision makers in families.

In 1994, the proportion of high school students who agreed that “the husband should make all the important decisions in the family” was fewer than 30 per cent. By 2014, nearly 40 per cent thought wives should defer to their husbands.

Soon after Coontz’s article appeared, data from the 2016 General Social Survey was released which paints a rosier picture. While women’s attitudes remained constant, 89 per cent of young men in the 2016 study disagreed that it was better to have a stay-at-home wife.

Phew! What a relief.

Or is it? It may be too soon to bring out the pink Champagne. According to Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, the increase in men disagreeing with the male bread-winner model may be a statistical blip rather than a reversal of attitudes.

Drawing on other data, Cohen shows that the long-term trend from the mid 90s onwards is bad news for gender equality. The trend over the last 20 years has been a steady move away from supporting gender equality.

The story isn’t much brighter closer to home. According to a 2010 study of Australian attitudes published in the Journal of Population Research, “the overall trend toward more egalitarian gender attitudes is most marked in Australia up until the mid-1990s with the trend flattening and in some cases, even reversing after this period”.

Are young people really more sexist than their parents? Have we decided the whole women-are-as-good-as-men experiment didn’t work out so we’re reverting back to the “good old days” when men were men and women were sex toys that cooked and vacuumed?

I suspect this regressive trend is partly due to a feminist backlash: that men have seen that if women are to get more, then they will have to get less. Perhaps gender equality is a great idea, until you have to share your toys. And life is no doubt more fun when you don’t have to wash your own clothes or have anyone questioning your decisions.

There is also the tendency to blame the normal workings of capitalism, such as the destruction and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, on the entry of women into the workplace. Even though it was men who shut those factories and shipped the jobs offshore, the increased workforce participation of women is being blamed for working class men’s unemployment.

Perhaps most concerning is that it’s not just young men who think it’s “better for everybody” if the woman stays home. Staggeringly, close to 30 per cent of women in the 2014 and 2016 US General Social Surveys also preferred the male breadwinner model.

Perhaps what we’re seeing here is not a rejection of gender equality, but rather the rejection of the new inequalities that have emerged. For example, many women find that their entry into paid work doesn’t lead to a reduction of domestic work. Rather, they’re just required to do a “second shift” of domestic work when they come home.

For many women, combining paid work with unpaid work in the home looks increasingly like a bad deal. And many of these millennials would have grown up seeing first-hand how tired, stressed and overworked “leaning in” made their mothers.

As Stephanie Coontz points out, young people’s support for gender equality has not declined in Europe. A key difference in these countries, compared with countries like the US and Australia, is that the pursuit of equality is treated as a collective and a structural endeavour – and is legislated and funded accordingly.

We need to move beyond seeing gender equality as a simple matter of women’s personal choice, and recognise and address the very real structural barriers to inequality such as access to childcare, workplace discrimination, inflexible work cultures, and the continued inequality in the home.

Otherwise, it’s unlikely things will be any fairer for our daughters.

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