Egalitarian Preferences, Gendered Realities

Most people say they'd prefer a balanced relationship. Photo by HomeSpot HQ via Flickr CC.
Most people say they’d prefer a balanced relationship. Photo by HomeSpot HQ via Flickr CC.

Sociologists have been studying the gender revolution’s stalled progress for the several decades. Data reveal a slowdown of women’s entry into the workforce and stagnation in the trend toward more liberal gender attitudes. So which gendered practices in key social and economic institutions might discourage women from achieving equality at work and at home: lack of parental leave, inflexible work hours, employer expectations? For researchers, the question is how do you isolate the effects of institutional policies and practices from individuals’ gendered selves and preferences?

David Pedulla and Sarah Thebaud took a stab at this causal conundrum in the American Sociological Review. They presented young, unmarried, childless adults with several hypothetical relationship forms, including an egalitarian partnership, a neotraditional (male breadwinner/female homemaker) relationship, a self-reliant model (preferring financial independence and a career over having a partner), or a reverse-traditional relationship. Using an experimental survey design, the researchers manipulated the degree of institutional constraint respondents faced in three conditions: a high-constraint condition (respondents were not given the option of being in an egalitarian relationship at all), a medium-constraint option (respondents could select that they wanted an egalitarian relationship but were not given information about workplace policies), and a low-constraint option (supportive work-family policies were mentioned).

Overwhelmingly, men and women, regardless of education level, preferred egalitarian relationships when given the option. However, when egalitarian relationships were not an option, class and gender differences emerged. Higher educated men and women, as well as working-class men, when faced with institutional constraints, preferred a neotraditional arrangement, while working-class women preferred self-reliance. The authors’ finding is clear: workplace practices and policies are crucial for shaping ongoing gender inequality at work and at home.