SALT LAKE CITY — Most Americans believe that men and women are equally talented in the workplace, yet women are still chiefly valued for their looks and nurturing ability, while men are prized for their honesty and professional success, according to a new report from Pew Research Center.
The survey, released Tuesday, covers a range of topics related to gender, from perceptions about men's and women's abilities in the workplace to the best ways to raise girls and boys. It shows that Americans value masculine men more than feminine women, and suggests that many of the pressures facing American families are unresolved because men and women hold traditional ideals about gender even as society has changed.
More than 70 percent of women with children under 18 work outside the home, or are looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet in the new report, large majorities of Americans say the biggest pressures facing men and women aren't changing: for men, to support their families financially and to be successful at work; for women, to be physically attractive and an involved parent.
The findings show “both men and women are influenced very powerfully by traditional gender roles,” said Brigid Schulte, director of Better Life Lab, a work-life and gender equality program at New America, a non-partisan think-tank in Washington, D.C., who served as a consultant to Pew on the survey.
Their feelings represent a sort of longing that no longer fits with the culture, and the survey helps to explain why the nation has been unable to adopt policies that would help families negotiate the challenges of child care and elder care, said Schulte, the author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time."
"Part of the reason we feel all this stress is we’re living one way and yet our mindsets are very much kind of stuck, if you will, in notions of what the right thing or good thing to do is for men and women," she said. "I think that it shows a really large disconnect between what we think and the way we live."
The Pew survey involved 4,573 adults who answered questions in either August or September of this year. The resulting report, entitled “On Gender Differences, No Difference on Nature vs. Nurture,” notes sharp differences between the sexes on questions ranging from societal pressures to parental strategies in raising girls and boys.
Men and women differ even on how they explain their differences, with more women saying societal expectations are responsible, while men identify biological differences as the reason.
Among the findings:
• When asked about the greatest pressures facing men, 76 percent said supporting their families financially and 68 percent said being successful on the job. Respondents said the greatest pressures facing women is to be an involved parent (77 percent) and to be physically attractive (71 percent).
• More than half (53 percent) say people look up to men who are manly or masculine; 32 percent said that society values feminine women.
• Millennial men are more likely to feel societal pressure to have multiple sexual partners (61 percent), to join in when other men are talking sexually about women (57 percent) and to throw a punch if they are provoked (69 percent). But 4 in 10 baby boomers and members of Generation X also feel compelled to join in if the conversation turns raunchy, as do more than one-third of the Silent Generation.
When asked what traits people value most in women, respondents chose physical attractiveness (35 percent) over intelligence (22 percent), hard work (9 percent) and competence (7 percent). Yet, just 12 percent of white women said they were very attractive, compared to one-quarter of Hispanic women and one-third of African-American women.
The survey also showed that men feel pressured to behave in both traditional and non-traditional ways. Eighty-six percent of men said they feel pressure to be “emotionally strong” and 71 percent said they feel pressure to be interested in sports.
Pew asked respondents to say how men and women differ in five areas: things they are good at in the workplace, how they express feelings, their approach to parenting, physical abilities, and their hobbies and personal interests.
Large majorities said men and women are different in each area except one: the things that people are good at in the workplace. About 63 percent of respondents — both men and women — said that men and women are basically similar in how they perform on the job.
Despite this, men and women feel greatly different expectations from society when they are at work, said Juliana Horowitz, Pew’s associate director for research.
“It’s interesting that at the same time that people are expressing views in favor of gender equality, and saying that things are good in the workplace, people are still seeing very different pressure points for men and women that seem to follow along traditional gender roles,” Horowitz said.
Americans may see women as equally competent in the workplace, but when asked what society values most in them, physical attractiveness ranks first, followed by empathy/nurturing/kindness, then intelligence, then honesty/morality, then ambition and leadership.
More respondents (33 percent) said men are valued most for honesty and morality, than for professional and financial success (23 percent), ambition and leadership (19 percent), strength and toughness (19 percent), and hard work and a good work ethic (18 percent).
As for ideas about masculinity and femininity, 53 percent of respondents said Americans look up to men who are considered masculine, while fewer than one-third say Americans look up to women who are considered womanly or feminine.
A partisan divide emerged on the question of masculinity, with 78 percent of Republicans (or those who lean Republican) saying it was good to respect masculine men, and 49 percent of Democrats saying this is a good thing.
A subset of 200 men and 200 women had come up with traits that they considered masculine or feminine prior to the survey. Traits that were considered manly or masculine included the words strong, assertive, muscular, confident, deep voice and facial hair.
Frequently used terms to describe women who are womanly or feminine included graceful, beauty or beautiful, caring and nurturing. “Many people also mentioned wearing makeup and dresses,” the report said.
On raising girls and boys
The new report comes on the heels of data Pew released in October about gender equality. That survey found Americans differ along party lines when asked whether men or women have easier lives, and whether the country still has more work to do with regard to gender equality.
Party affiliation also came into play in the new report, most significantly when respondents were asked about child-rearing strategies.
Eighty-five percent of Democrats says it’s a good thing for parents to encourage their daughters to do things or play with toys normally associated with boys, and 78 percent said it's good to let boys do activities normally associated with girls.
Republicans, however, were less likely to agree: 66 percent said it’s a good thing to encourage girls to play with toys or do activities normally associated with boys, and 47 percent said boys should be encouraged to do things that in the past have been associated with girls.
And Republicans were more vehement in their objection to boys playing with girl toys: 52 percent said this is bad, including 17 percent who said the practice is “very bad.”
Schulte, of New America, said with the aging of the baby boomers and the increasing need for elder care, the country faces a crisis “that our mindsets are not prepared to deal with because our mindset is stuck in the 1950s.”6 comments on this story
That mindset, she said, is "either-or" — either you can have meaningful work or close relationships with family, either you can live like it’s the 1950s or “live like crazy maniacs.”
“To me, what this shows is a grand failure of imagination on all of our parts, that we cannot imagine what work and life could look like if we opened it up to enable both men and women to do it," she said.
For people who want to see how their own views on gender stack up to the Americans who took part in the survey, Pew has set up an interactive quiz on its website, Pewresearch.org.