UWM study: Trading work and family roles transformative

Noelle Chesley

Nontraditional family roles in heterosexual couples could cause changes in marital relationships that promote gender equality – the opposite effect that traditional roles encourage, according to a study by a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

Previous research has found that parental status reinforces a range of disparities between men and women, says Assistant Professor Noelle Chesley. Her study suggests that simple empathy may be able to reverse that.

“Fathers who had once worked outside of the home came to value their increased involvement in children’s care in ways that reduce gender differences,” says Chesley, “and that have the potential to translate into institutional change, particularly when they re-enter the labor force.”

She interviewed 21 couples in 2008, just before the economic downturn hit. Many swapped family roles because the men’s employment situation had changed and men were either not working or were working only part time. Chesley’s study included only couples in which the men had been at home caring for children for at least six months, and wives earned at least 80 percent of the household income. Husbands who worked could only do so 10 hours or less a week.

The study, funded by a Sloan Work-Family Early Career Development Grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is published in the October issue of the journal Gender & Society and is online at http://gas.sagepub.com/.

Responses showed that trading work and family roles was transformative for both partners, but in different ways.

Men reported being more sensitive to balancing work and home responsibilities once they returned to work full time. They also said they became more sympathetic to employees’ family issues and were less likely to marginalize a woman who had taken time off from a career to stay at home with children.

Women thrust into the role of breadwinner stated fundamental differences between themselves and male breadwinners. These women said they were still psychologically connected to home, despite job responsibilities. At the same time, they said, they could also relate better to the pressure to earn that men tend to face.

“Female breadwinners may be staying involved with their families in a way that male breadwinners aren’t,” says Chesley, which offers their partners shared understandings of family life.

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