Millennials Are More Accepting Of Working Mothers, But Some Want Women To Stay At Home

Working mom
It seems that even millennials are conflicted about working moms. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

Though we’re in the midst of what is certainly a historic cultural and legal shift in America — the legalization of same sex marriage throughout the country — it’s important to remember that the road to progress and equality is often times shaky and slippery.

It’s a lesson that might be best emphasized by the results of a new survey published in Psychology of Women Quarterly today. It found that while millennials are by and large more tolerant of working mothers than even a generation ago, there is a slightly growing desire among them to see women take back the role of caretakers in the home while the men go off to be the breadwinners — moreso than Gen X’ers did in the 1990’s. The findings may signify that while the younger generation is generally more accepting of expanding gender roles, there is a subset of those who yearn for the nostalgia of a simpler time.

The study authors pored over forty years worth of data from two nationally representative surveys taken of adults and teenagers attending 12th grade in high school. They then compared and contrasted how these groups, at different periods of time, felt about women’s roles in society, especially as they began to increasingly enter the workplace and demand equality.

For the good news, the perception that women with children who subsequently went off to work were somehow abandoning their family has steadily eroded. Only 22 percent of 12 graders polled throughout the 2010’s felt that preschool aged children suffered when they had a working mother, down from 34 percent in the late 1990s and 59 percent in the 1970s. And only 35 percent of adults thought these children were worse off with a working mother, down from 42 percent in 1998 and 68 percent in 1977.

Similarly, the authors found that in 2012, 72 percent of adults thought that working mothers were more than capable of maintaining good relationships with their children, up from only about 50 percent who thought so in 1977.

But while there’s been a general gradual acceptance of working mothers, more 12th graders now (32 percent) believe that men are best suited to work and that women should stay at home than 12th graders did in the 1990’s (27 percent). And 17 percent of 12th graders now think that the man is truly the king of the household and should make the important decisions of the family, slightly up from the 14 percent who believed so in the mid 1990’s. This is despite the fact that 68 percent of students now report having a mother who works throughout their entire childhood, up from 61 percent in the late 1990’s and 33 percent in the 1970’s.

"Students are more accepting of mothers working, but a growing minority believes that men should be the rulers of the household or more believe that women should work, but still have less power at home," wrote the study authors. "This trend is particularly surprising given the legitimization of same-sex marriage over this time period, which challenges traditional gender-based views of marriage."

As women’s societal roles are changing, it seems that we’re conflicted about how we should truly feel about it. And for a small but not insignificant minority, that tension may make them want to return back to a more rigid and constricted family structure. In the face of independence, it appears to be part of our human nature to want stability.

But the genie is out of the bottle, and the freedom and equality that women have tenaciously fought for has only been to the greater betterment of our society. If anything, the authors feel that their findings point to a need to secure those hard-earned victories, especially for working mothers.

"The majority of U.S. adults and high school students now accept the idea that women will work even when the have young children," they concluded. "This suggests a continued, urgent need for programs to help working families."  

Source: Donnelly et al. Attitudes Toward Women's Work and Family Roles in the United States, 1976-2013. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2015

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