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In a new paper, psychologists analyze 40 years' of data on Americans' opinions about women's roles in society

Modern family

More teens think husbands “should be the rulers of the household,” study says

By Alice Robb on July 2, 2015

Just 30 years ago, 89 percent of Americans said they would be “upset” if their child turned out to be gay. Today, 39 percent of Americans feel that way, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuality and gay marriage have practically reversed over the past few decades, but not all our views are so malleable: Americans’ attitudes toward women and work have proved somewhat more entrenched.

In a new paper in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, a group of researchers led by Kristin Donnelly, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego and Jean Twenge of San Diego State University analyzed 40 years’ worth of data on Americans’ attitudes about working mothers and the ideal division of labor within a marriage. They drew on two surveys: the “Monitoring the Future” survey, which the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has been conducting since 1975 among a nationally representative sample of U.S. 12th-graders, and the General Social Survey of adults, a similar long-term study sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Overall, their data consider the opinions of about 600,000 respondents.

Not all the trends Donnelly and Twenge reveal are unilinear, but at least one is clear: we’re moving away from the view that working mothers are damaging their kids. In the 2010s, just 22 percent of 12th-grade students said that preschool children were at a disadvantage if their mom worked outside the house, down from 34 percent in the late 1990s and 59 percent in the 1970s. High school seniors’ views on working mothers are more accepting than those of older adults: 35 percent of respondents in the General Social Survey said that preschool kids suffer if they have a working mother, down from 42 percent in 1998 and 68 percent in 1977. (We’re slowly coming around to the view that’s correct: According to another new paper from Harvard Business School, girls whose mothers work are more likely to eventually have better jobs and more egalitarian marriages themselves.)

In 2012, 72 percent of adults believed it’s possible for working mothers to have good relationships with their kids; just under half thought so in 1977. These changes might reflect first-hand experience. The number of students who actually have working mothers has more than doubled over this period, from 33 percent in the 1970s to 68 percent in the 2010s.

There’s some evidence, though, of a return to more traditional attitudes toward gender roles within families. The number of students agreeing with the statement, “The husband should make all the important decisions in the family,” has actually increased slightly over the past few years, from 14 percent in the mid-1990s to 17 percent in the 2010s. And the number of students who believe that an ideal household consists of a man who works full-time and a woman who stays at home has also increased, from 27 percent in the 1990s to 32 percent today.

“Students are more accepting of mothers working,” the authors write, “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.”