Research conducted at San Diego State University shows that societal acceptance of working mothers is at an all-time high.
Researchers analyzed data from nearly 600,000 respondents from two nationally representative surveys — one of U.S. 12th graders and the other of adults — taken between 1976 and 2013. The goal was to understand how attitudes towards women’s work and family roles have changed in the United States since the 1970s.
They found that millennials are significantly more accepting of working mothers than previous generations were at the same age. Only 22 percent of 12th graders in the 2010s believed that a preschool-aged child would suffer if their mother worked, down from 34 percent in the 1990s and 59 percent in the 1970s.
“This goes against the popular belief that millennials want to ‘turn back the clock,’ or that they are less supportive of working moms because their own mothers worked. Instead they are more supportive,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at SDSU and a lead author of the study. Twenge's book, “Generation Me,” describes a generational shift toward individualism and narcissism.
Across the board
It’s not just young people who are more accepting of mothers returning to work. A similar trend appeared among adults. In 1977, 68 percent of U.S. adults surveyed believed “a preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works,” compared to 42 percent in 1998 and 35 percent in 2012.
"In recent years, Americans have become much more supportive of men and women holding the same roles and responsibilities in the workplace as well as in child-rearing,” said lead researcher Kristin Donnelly, who was a graduate student at SDSU when the research was conducted and is now pursuing her Ph.D at the University of California, San Diego.
“These results suggest a convergence to a common gender role for both genders as equal parts provider and caretaker, flexibly switching between the two without regard for traditionally gendered conceptions of duty," Donnelly continued.
Twenge added, "This suggests a growing gender equality and more acceptance of others' choices. Both are consistent with a culture placing more emphasis on individualism, or more focus on the self and less on social rules."
Researchers were surprised to also find a growing minority of millennials who hold more patriarchal views of marriage. Twenty-seven percent of 12th graders in 1995-1996 agreed that it is best for the man to work and the woman to take care of the family, compared to 32 percent in 2010-2013. Fourteen percent in the 1995-96 survey said the husband should make the important family decisions, compared with 17 percent in 2010-2013.
“Millennials might see marriage as only for certain types of people,” said Twenge. "With the marriage rate at an all-time low, today's young people may believe that marriage is a traditional choice involving more rigid gender roles."
The results were published today in Psychology of Women Quarterly.