Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Role reversal in the family: what does the research say?

In the modern scheme of things gender is not supposed to matter. So a lot of people look forward to traditional family roles being overthrown. Some even promote the idea of a gender role reversal in which women take over the provider role and men stay home to look after the children.

But is such a role reversal either possible or desirable? Before answering this question, consider some research on Australian families undertaken jointly by academics at the University of Melbourne and The Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers are openly sympathetic to the feminist quest for a non-traditional family. Their findings, though, are likely to be of most interest to traditionalists.

Where to start? First, the researchers see little future in a genuine, Mr Mom style, role reversal. They note that this family type is insignificant in number, representing less than 2% of all families (p.20). They also point out the contradiction in telling women to abandon the traditional motherhood role for (supposedly) being unfulfilling and then urging men to adopt it (p.2).

The researchers, therefore, focus instead not on a complete gender role reversal but on a partial change of roles: one in which women become the main breadwinners by earning at least 10% more than their partners. This is a more significant family type, as in any one year 20% of Australian families will fall into the “female provider” category.

The 20% figure is, however, misleading as the female will only be the main provider in many of these families temporarily. The researchers, therefore, looked at the situation over two years, rather than one, and found that in 13.9% of families the woman was the main provider over both years. The researchers label the women in these 13.9% of families persistent female breadwinners. (Note that the percentage of persistent female providers would decline for every year added to the survey.)

This brings us to a significant question. What kinds of family outcomes are associated with persistent female breadwinner families as opposed to the more traditional persistent male breadwinner families (which represent 62.1% of families)?

The researchers, despite their feminist sympathies, readily admit that the outcomes are best in male provider families (p.6). They quote the work of family sociologists who have found that,

male breadwinner families with women specialising in unpaid childrearing and housework are superior to other forms in providing stability, continuity and marital happiness ... an argument recently extended to include families where the woman is part-time employed and the man remains the primary earner ... The existence of economic persistent female breadwinner families to the extent they indeed involve low levels of commitment by the man to family, and to the extent they rear fewer children, supports [this] view.

So men in female provider families show “low levels of commitment” to their families compared to traditional men. The researchers, though, aren’t about to give up. Quite reasonably, they investigate whether there might be two different kinds of female provider families.

The researchers looked at the answers given by men in female provider families to questions about “gender equity” (the men were effectively asked whether they thought that men and women were interchangeable in their roles within the family). The men who scored highly were placed in a “gender equity” group and the rest in an “economic” group.

It’s clear that the researchers were pleased to find that the “gender equity” group of men, those who believed in the ideal of a genderless family, measured up to a feminist ideal of family life better than the “economic” group who simply lacked qualifications to compete in the labour market.

What is the feminist ideal looked for by the researchers? It is a family type in which both the man and woman reduce their working hours to spend more time with their families; in which men support women adopting the role of the main provider; in which fertility remains high; and in which men and women evenly share child-care and housework.

In table 4 (p.16) there is a comparison between the “economic” type of female provider families and the “gender equity” type. You can see from this table why the researchers believe that the “gender equity” type of family measured up better to their feminist criteria: the gender equity type of men spent an additional 3.5 hours per week with their children compared to the economic type; there was a more even division of housework between men and women (1.3 hours difference compared to 8.2 hours); amongst those employed, the gender equity type worked fewer hours (36.9 compared to 41.1); and the fertility rate was higher (by roughly 50%).

Sounds good? The researchers saw at least a glimmer of hope in the gender equity model. In their summary they reported that,

The equity oriented persistent female breadwinner families represent, as we supposed, not so much a reversal of traditional roles as a family form that offers economic and family success in tandem with gender equity. This group provides cause for hope for a feminist vision of families that can simultaneously achieve all three objectives.

From here, though, it is all downhill for the “gender equity” type of family. First, the researchers themselves point to one major problem: that of the 13.9% of female provider families, only 2.9% were of the “equity” type. This type of family is therefore not very significant statistically, and if there is a growth in female provider families, it is likely to bring about a larger increase in “economic” rather than “equity” type arrangements.

More importantly, the equity type families only look good in comparison to the economic type families. When compared to the traditional male provider families they don’t measure up well at all.

To understand this best you have to compare the data for traditional families in table 3 on p.14 with the data for the equity type families in table 4 on p.16.

First, consider the issue of fertility. In male provider families, there is an average of 1.7 children compared to only 1.05 in equity type families. Why is there such a difference? Those equity type couples who do choose to become parents tend to have multiple children, but there are too many who choose not to have children at all. So the commitment to family, in respect of children, is much less consistent amongst equity type couples compared to male provider families.

Then there is the issue of employment. One weakness of the equity type model is that the commitment of men to employment is much weaker. Only 53% of such men are employed full-time compared to 95.7% of male provider men. The traditional men work considerably longer weekly hours (45.8), compared to equity men (36.9).

Nor do equity men use their non-working hours to spend more time with their children. Traditional men spend 9.2 hours per week with their children, compared to 8.7 hours for equity type men.

One other striking statistic. Equity type women spend only 5.3 hours per week with their own children! This means that traditional provider type men not only spend 5 hours a week longer at work than feminist type women, they also spend nearly 4 hours longer with their children.

To summarise: traditional male provider families represent 62.1% of Australian families; feminist type families only 2.9%. Traditional men spend nine more hours per week in paid employment than equity type men, but still manage to spend more time with their children. Women in equity type families spend very little time with their own children and are far more likely to opt to remain childless.

Perhaps, then, gender does matter. Isn’t it possible that a man who finds a masculine role within the family will be far more strongly committed to both work and family life? Isn’t it possible that men who lose their masculine role within a family will become demoralised (the “economic” type) and be less inclined to father children, or commit in a stable way to paid work, or devote time to their children? Isn’t it also possible that men and women who are reluctant to constrain their individualism with gender (the “equity” type), will also be reluctant to constrain their individualism with the burdens of parenthood?

Finally, let me point out that the data deals a fatal blow to the negative stereotype of traditional men, namely that they are not pulling their weight within families. In fact, traditional men ought to take a bow: the data shows that they are more actively committed to family life than either feminist type men or feminist type women. They are more likely to have children, to work to support them, and to spend time with them. They don’t deserve to be lectured by feminists, whose commitment to family life is weak in comparison.


  1. Is this for real? They compare feminist families to perhaps the most deprived families of all (those that need two workers to make ends meet). They then conclude that feminist families are better. Why not just go the whole hog and compare feminist families to ones in which the man is in jail?

    Btw, Mark, why don't you post on MR anymore?

  2. Alex, I'm taking a wait and see attitude to MR at the moment, due to the unevenness in the material published there.

  3. Interesting. My husband stays home with the children while I work. We've been doing this for 12 years. We were both strongly committed to family and the importance of having a parent at home even before we got married. But since I had more earning potential than he did, we arranged things as we did. He "parents" the kids differently than I would have; he is more into the active stuff (e.g. outdoor play) whereas I would have been more of an arts & crafts/library, sort of stay-at-home parent. But he is a fully committed father, not a slacker like the men in the study.