What Keeps Couples From Gender Equal Lifestyles?

It often seems that the world is full of nothing but depressing examples of how far we are from achieving gender equality. But fortunately, there's also the occasional bit of evidence that things really are getting better, such as a study that says both men and women prefer egalitarian arrangements in romantic relationships. So what's getting in the way of achieving that? Basically the fact that society make it so hard.

In this study, which was published in American Sociological Review, researchers David S. Pedulla from the University of Texas at Austin and Sarah Thébaud from the University of Santa Barbara looked at a nationally representative sample of unmarried, childless men and women and asked them about their ideal relationship. In looking at how these unmarried people envisioned ideally balancing work and family life, they found that both men and women tend to want a fairly egalitarian relationship in which both partners share housework and childcare responsibilities.

Then why is it that in real life, women are much more likely to get stuck with most of the housework and to be the ones who leave work to raise children? As Thébaud pointed out, “This research highlights an important disjuncture between the ideals and preferences of young men and women and the workplace policies and practices that are currently standard in the United States."

So what gives?

Well, as far as the researchers can tell, the disconnect comes from the fact that being egalitarian turns out to be much harder than these young single people envision it to be. After all, our society is set up in such a way that it assumes that women will be primary caregivers and men primary breadwinners, rather than both parties being partners in both areas. And no matter how much individuals might believe that this more traditional model is unfair and outdated, that doesn't change the way our society is set up.

“A key implication of this research is that men’s and women’s current work-family arrangements are often suboptimal and result from a particular set of unsupportive workplace policies and practices,” said Thébaud. “What our study helps to show is that if we were to change the workplace policy environment, we would likely see changes in how people express their ideal preferences for balancing work and family life.”

The researchers suggest that if American workplaces stopped behaving as though that their employees are primary breadwinners with a primary caregiver helping out at home, and instead provided more options conducive to being both an employee and a parent, such as flexible scheduling and office daycare, that men and women might be better able to achieve their goals of relationship equality. And public policy changes like mandated paid maternity — and paternity — leave probably wouldn't hurt either.

As it stands, though, equality is being stifled by outdated assumptions — not ont he part of most individual people looking to live their lives, but by fossilized societal institutions. So maybe it's time we ditch the stifling older model and instead make policies that support Americans' desire to be more egalitarian.

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