"Is it acceptable for wives to work outside the home?"
Sounds like the kind of question you might've heard at the beginning of an awful 1950s educational film, right?
But it's actually one researchers have been asking high school seniors in the U.S. since the 1970s. Derek Thompson wrote about the implications of this research in his recent article in The Atlantic, "When a Promotion Leads to Divorce."
- In the late 70s, 80% of students said that wives working full-time was "not at all acceptable."
- By the 2010s, that number had dropped to 30% (which, admittedly, still seems shockingly high to me...).
- Students were also asked whether wives working full-time was "desirable."
- The extra shocking takeaway — the percentage of students who said "yes" has hardly changed in that same timespan, increasing from just 3% in 1976 to a whopping 5% in 2014.
As sociologist Brittany Dernberger explains in the article, ""Young people are open to a variety of marital arrangements, but what they desire is still very traditional." (E.g. Most young people say they don't have any problems with a women working full-time, but when young women are asked whether they want to work full time once they're married, or when heterosexual men are asked whether they'd like their future wife to work full-time, they're still very likely to say no.)
And if you're thinking that these traditional preferences are a direct result of American capitalism, think again. Thompson sites a recent study from Sweden, which assessed how career milestones affect marriages.It found that certain kinds of promotions nearly double the rate of divorce for women, but not for men.
So what does this mean for women in the workplace?
For just the second time, women in the U.S. outnumber men in the paid workforce. And yet huge gender gaps persist in leadership positions across government and corporate America.
Thompson argues that, "The most common explanations for these inequalities tend to be institutional, blaming sexism among voters and corporate boards, old-boy networks that bar women from career development, and inequitable parental leave. But several new studies suggest that the fault is not exclusively in our institutions but also in ourselves. Teenagers and young couples still cling to the traditional notion that career success is a male drama in which women must do their best in a supporting role."
This jibes with a recent study that has found that women still do twice as many household chores as men. And with other research that suggests the secret to your success is who you marry. Several famous couples, from Barack & Michelle to Beyonce and Jay Z, have echoed this sentiment. So the question then becomes...how feasible is it for women to find men that would be supportive of their professional ambitions and successes?
We're not here to pass judgement on anyone's personal preferences — be it working full-time and raising a family, working as a stay-at-home parent, or choosing not to marry or have children. But when those preferences have not evolved nearly as much as many of us might have assumed, it begs the question: can we ever bridge the gender gap in Congress, Hollywood, and Corporate America if these preferences remain the same?
As for Thompson, he sums it up like this:
"A traditional conservative might look at these two studies and conclude that the dual-career dream of progressive feminism is an unworkable fantasy in the real world, the sort of thing that leftists just want other people to want. A certain kind of Marxist, meanwhile, will insist that all suffering and unfairness in this world is a matter of political economy, and the perfect labor, welfare, and capital-ownership policies will unleash pure gender equality and marital bliss.
While my views on the matter align more closely with the latter group, I think both perspectives are wrong. It is conceivable that in some future post-capitalist society, gender inequities will melt away, along with the notions of private property and enterprise. But in the world that exists, better public policy is a necessary but insufficient component of a fully equal society. What also matters is private policy—the way that couples talk, plan, share, and adapt when their lives or preferences change."