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Men increasingly support gender equality on the homefront and in the workplace — a trend that has reversed since the 1990s and early 2000s.

SALT LAKE CITY — Men increasingly support gender equality, and they're rolling up their sleeves and pitching in more often at home, too — from caring for the kids to sharing shopping and cleaning responsibilities.

That's according to a pair of studies from the Council on Contemporary Families that find male support for equality in the workplace, in politics and at home is at a high point since the General Social Survey first started asking in the late 1970s. And while men are still less egalitarian than women, the gap is narrowing.

"These studies suggest that although history does not move in a straight line, acceptance of gender equality continues to spread and deepen," said Stephanie Coontz, CCF director of research and education, adding that she believes gender equality is good for families.

Baby boomers, Generation X and millennials are all increasingly egalitarian, a fact that drives the degree of change compared with earlier generations, said David Cotter, chairman of the sociology department at Union College and lead researcher of "Patterns of Progress? Changes in Gender Ideology 1977-2016," one of the two studies. It notes a trend toward supporting gender equality on issues such as who belongs in the workplace, whether men can manage the home and whether women and men are equally suited for politics.

Aaron Thorup, contemporaryfamilies.org
contemporaryfamilies.org

The other study looks at shifting roles and attitudes among married couples and finds that while women still do the bulk of household tasks, men are stepping up more in terms of helping. "Not All Housework Is Created Equal: Particular Housework Tasks and Couples’ Relationship Quality" finds that gender equity in household tasks didn't affect relationship quality in 1992, but by 2006, men who shared some of the tasks found that the quality of both their relationship and their sex lives improved, said lead author Daniel Carlson, an assistant professor of family, health and policy at the University of Utah. His study focuses primarily on lower- and moderate-income parents and breaks down the data by the tasks performed in the household.

Even though close to 60 percent of women today have paid employment, women still do most household tasks, including cleaning and child rearing, Carlson said. But when men help at home, relationship problems fade and couples are happier.

Not all tasks — or rewards — are the same. Women are still more apt than men to do cleaning and laundry, although they spend less time on them than they did in the 1990s, when more of them were home instead of working. Of the tasks examined, men are most likely to share shopping, with 29 percent of men doing that at least some of the time. They increasingly help with laundry and cleaning. Though the study notes the share of men now helping is "relatively small," it marks a significant departure from past practice.

"Far more men are sharing laundry, cleaning and dishwashing chores," Carlson said.

Women most want men to help wash dishes, though any household help has some impact. When partners share that task, women are more satisfied overall with home life.

Said Coontz, "The next time they read a magazine article claiming that the way to put their wife in a romantic mood is to run her a bath, they might want to throw that magazine in the trash and run themselves a sink full of dirty dishes."

A bumpy trajectory

The trend of gender egalitarianism at home and in the workplace has been bumpy, with stops and starts. Support stalled in the 1990s, then crept forward in the 2000s, with "mixed results" in the 2010s. By 2016, support for gender equality gained favor to a new degree.

Getting a clear picture of attitudes about equality has been challenging.

"We've been getting a lot of mixed messages recently," Coontz said, noting a 2014 survey of high school seniors found "heightened support for husbands' authority over wives in the home and for more traditional work-family arrangements. Also, of course, the #MeToo movement has exposed a stunning amount of persistent sexual harassment of women at work. Many people have interpreted this as showing that the women's movement has sparked a backlash and is losing support."

The new studies, however, indicate renewed momentum for equality, she said.

Those who want more gender equality lament the stalls and sometimes backward motion, while others worry in the opposite direction. "It's true that when women first entered the labor force and got more economic independence, divorce rates rose" as couples adjusted to their new roles, Coontz said. Now, many couples delay marriage, and some choose alternate arrangements. Making those choices is not necessarily bad, she said, adding some delays actually stabilize marriage, as can happen when women put off marriage until they finish their education and get a good job.

Coontz predicts that as more couples share housework, America's birthrate will see an uptick after a period of declines. European studies show that women are more likely to have second and third children if their mates help out with the first one.

Yet is it sometimes women themselves who block men who want to share the load at home. Wives may appoint themselves gatekeepers and assume husbands won't do a good job at tasks, which discourages help, Coontz said.

Men won't shop or do household chores if they're made to feel incompetent at them, she said.

According to Carlson's study, "The more common it is to share a task, the more damaging to relationship quality it is for just one partner to shoulder responsibility for it. This is why shopping and dishwashing appear to matter so much for relationship quality. It seems individuals and couples take stock of their arrangements in comparison to those around them, and those assessments of relative advantage or disadvantage come to shape their feelings about their arrangements and their relationships overall."

More men helping at home does not mean women can expect to relax because the guys are cooking and cleaning up a storm. While more men share or tackle household tasks than in the past, their numbers fall far short of a majority. Between the early 1990s and 2006, the number of low- and moderate-income parents who shared household cleaning chores had doubled — to a paltry 22 percent. The number who helped with laundry surged 129 percent from what it had been — to a mere 21 percent. And even in the category where men are most likely to share a task — shopping — it's just 30 percent of men.

Changing world

Right now, working-class men have fewer employment opportunities than in the past, and they're falling behind women in terms of how many earn college degrees. Carlson believes some of the earlier slowing of gender equality occurred because "women's lives had changed, but men's hadn't. Work policies hadn't changed to keep up, either."

Increased gender equality in marriage signals couples are choosing to run their relationships as they wish instead of following traditional gender scripts, according to the study authors. People decide what works for them.

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And the recent upward trend toward increased gender equality may be here to stay — at least for the forseeable future, as older generations age and give way to new ones, Carlson noted. "Overall, the younger generation is far more egalitarian-minded than their parents are. Youths are especially egalitarian, and women are more so than men. The biggest gulf is between girls and their dads."

Carlson's co-authors on the shared housework study are Amanda Miller and Sharon Sassler. Cotter's research was conducted with Joan M. Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman.