Data on dads shift how young women view their future

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When women have the impression that more men are becoming stay-at-home parents, they are more likely to imagine themselves as the financial providers for their future families, research finds.

“This shows how dependent women’s role choices can be on their expectations of their future male partners,” says lead study author Alyssa Croft, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona psychology department. “Those expectations could have implications for what women are willing and able to do in their own lives.”

Croft’s findings arise from a series of experiments conducted in the United States and Canada, in which she and her collaborators asked single female college students, ages 18 to 25, to write about how they imagine their lives 15 years in the future. The researchers focused on young women who plan on one day getting married and having children.

Participants were told they were part of a study on how people are affected by statistics in everyday life. They were presented a fact sheet that included a series of graphs on a range of topics, such as smoking rates, precipitation trends, fruit and vegetable consumption, and how the percentage of stay-at-home dads has increased over time.

Dad graphs

Participants in each experiment saw the same data—either from the US Census Bureau or Statistics Canada, depending on where the experiment took place. However, the graphs on stay-at-home dads were presented differently to different participants.

“Could it be that women are picturing… a very stereotypic division of labor in their future families?”

Some saw the increase in stay-at-home dads represented as a steep line on a graph, which gave the appearance of a more rapid and dramatic shift. Others saw a flatter line, suggesting a more gradual change. Researchers merely tweaked the y-axis of the graph to get two different visual representations of the same data.

The researchers also manipulated the text accompanying the graphs. In the US versions of the graphs, which showed that the percentage of stay-at-home dads in America increased from 4 to 12 percent over two-and-a-half decades, the graph was titled either “Rapidly increasing prevalence of stay-at-home dads” or “Low prevalence of stay-at-home dads.” Text beneath the graphs either read, “These numbers are projected to continue increasing at a similarly rapid rate over the next two decades” or “These numbers are projected to remain relatively low in the next two decades.”

After seeing the graphs, each study participant was asked to provide responses to a series of questions about how they imagine their lives in 15 years, including whether they see themselves as being the primary financial provider or primary caregiver for their family.

In both the US and Canada, young women who saw the graph depicting a sharper increase in stay-at-home fathers were more likely to see themselves as breadwinners, while those who saw the flatter line were more likely to imagine themselves as caregivers. The researchers replicated the findings across a series of similar experiments.

Division of labor

Croft says the research was motivated by the fact that although gender roles have changed significantly, that change has been asymmetrical. An estimated 70 percent of US families today have two working parents, and women are increasingly more likely to be the primary economic providers for their families. However, family responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately to women, Croft says.

“Women’s roles are changing much more quickly than men’s, but we wondered, could it be that there is a still a sense in which women’s roles are restricted because of the way gender roles are intertwined with one another?” she says. “Could it be that women are picturing, before they’re even in a relationship, a very stereotypic division of labor in their future families? And does that affect the education and career decisions they make when they’re young?”

More research is needed to understand how and to what extent women’s perceptions of men’s roles affect the education and career choices they make early on, but the fact that those perceptions are shaping their future visions of themselves at all is significant, Croft says.

“This may be one reason we should care about the degree to which men’s roles aren’t changing as much as women’s,” she says.

More research also is needed to understand whether men’s visions for their futures are similarly influenced by their perception of women’s roles. Some men, for example, might welcome relief from the stereotypical expectation that men should be the financial providers, Croft says.

“Perhaps thinking about women changing their roles to relinquish some of the caregiving control would be appealing to men who want to be more involved with their children,” she says. “But that’s an open question at this point.”

The study appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Source: University of Arizona