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How Much Have Things Changed Between Men and Women?

There has been more change gender roles in the external world than in the private world of intimate relationships

Key points

  • Progress in gender equality has plateaued in the past 20 years.
  • Gender roles have changed more at work than at home.
PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay
Source: PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

I’ve been writing about the negative impact of gender role socialization on men and their intimate relationships here for over four years. Occasionally I hear from younger readers who critique my work as dated. These readers believe that some of my generalizations about men, such as “men are afraid of being dominated and controlled by women” or "men are scared of women's emotions" are less true of younger men. As is often true of younger people, they prefer to believe they are not subject to the foibles they observe in their elders. Their challenges led me to consider how gender socialization in men and their intimate partners has changed over time.

Evidence for Changes in Gender Role Socialization

Social scientists generally agree that there have been dramatic changes in gender role socialization in the past 50 years, although that progress seems to have stalled in the past two decades. Researchers speculate that further advances would require increased participation by men in childcare and other household responsibilities, along with increased availability of affordable childcare and greater adoption of family-friendly policies in the workplace.

It appears that successive generations are more likely to hold strong egalitarian views. However, research also suggests that couples in their 60s actually have a more equitable division of labor in their relationships than couples in their 30s. Apparently, having an egalitarian relationship is harder than it seems.

Greater Changes in the External World Than at Home

Evidence also suggests that these changes in gender role socialization have been more substantive in the public sphere of work and politics than in the private sphere of family life. Gender is one of the earliest and strongest forms of individual identity. Children at an early age hold gender-based beliefs about what boys and girls like to do. That early socialization is highly resistant to extinction, particularly for boys, in part because as boys mature and gravitate towards playing with other boys, their newly important friends strongly reinforce these rigid gender expectations, and boys become increasingly verbally and even physically abusive towards other boys who deviate from the accepted gender roles.

Gender Role Conflict (GRC) is a term researchers use to describe men’s inevitable failures to meet the socialized gender-laden expectations for them. Deviation from these gender role expectations leads to a loss of stature or devaluation by others, and internal conflicts about being weak, less of a man, or worth less than other more gender-conforming men. Over 200 studies link GRC to difficulties such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, high risk-taking behaviors, negative attitudes towards seeking help, and suicide. For example, men who are secondary earners for long periods of time experience poorer physical health and are at increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases (for example, diabetes, heart problems, high cholesterol, hypertension, and stroke) and stress-related issues (for example, back problems, chronic lung disease, psychiatric problems, and stomach ulcers).

Gender Role Conflict also strongly affects how men are in intimate relationships. High GRC is negatively related to intimacy in relationships and positively related to low relationship satisfaction and happiness. High GRC also correlates with hostility and aggression and abusive behavior toward women.

Contrary to the egalitarian aspirations of younger generations, Gender Role Conflict tends to be fairly consistent throughout men’s lifespans. Restricted emotionality remains the most consistent conflict over time, but older men tend to be less conflicted about the masculine expectations around competition and striving for success and power than younger men.

When I was raising my children in the late 1980s, there was a popular joke: “What do you call a man in the park with his children on a Saturday?” The punchline was “divorced” because you rarely saw a father in the park with his children unless he was divorced. I am currently most hopeful about changing gender role constrictions when I am with young families and notice that when a baby cries or a young child needs attention, the father often tends to the child. We certainly have come a long way since the first time I saw a diaper-changing table in the men’s room of a fast-food restaurant.

Excerpted in part from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships (Lasting Impact Press).


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