How Do Traditional Gender Roles Affect Women's Careers?

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How do traditional gender roles regarding housework and the raising of children affect women’s employment status? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Shannon Fisher, Social & Political Commentator, on Quora:

There are essentially three relationship scenarios in heterosexual relationships. Two of the gender-role scenarios seem to satisfy most of the couples who live within those constructs, but the third arrangement is rife with stress for one or both partners.

The Traditional Approach

The first scenario strictly follows traditional gender roles. The man works outside the home to earn money to support the family, and the woman’s time and focus is spent keeping the house (and everyone in it) running smoothly. Both partners spend roughly the same amount of time and energy working, and the income earned by the person working outside the home (in this instance, the man) is shared and used for the needs of everyone in the household.

If both people agree to this arrangement, and genuinely feel satisfied fulfilling these roles, things usually go relatively smoothly (financially speaking). This situation can go awry for two main reasons: 1) the woman feels her talents and/or desires are being stifled by being limited to working inside the home; or 2) there is economic abuse on the part of the wage earner, with the man unfairly withholding or controlling the finances to maintain control over all or most of the household decision making. If those two pitfalls can be avoided, the couple can usually run an agreeable ship.

The Egalitarian Approach

This arrangement is the polar opposite of the first but also successful. Here, women and men both work outside the home, and they share the household and parenting duties 50/50. As with the more traditional scenario, provided both partners are on board with this egalitarian arrangement, it usually works quite well. When one partner does not feel any more responsible for anything in the household than the other partner does, duties can be discussed and divided fairly.

Because this way of managing a household involves redefining traditional gender roles, frank, productive discussions about the differences between expectation and reality are important. Equal expenditure of time and energy is the most important factor when assigning duties, and fairness is the goal here. This arrangement works as long as both partners are committed to doing their fair share of contributing (and correcting an imbalance, should one arise).

The Nebulous Approach

Between economic conditions often requiring a double-income household, and changing attitudes about gender roles, the traditional scenario is becoming less and less prevalent. The egalitarian approach still feels too progressive for many people, though – especially men and women who have been raised with traditional gender expectations. The chasm between the two is a vast, formula-less space with no clear guidelines for divvying up monetary and household contributions. This can lead to resentment and strife.

Here, it doesn’t matter whether the man or the woman is the breadwinner or homemaker; everything is on a sliding scale based on the attitudes of the two partners. We develop our relationship expectations based on personal values, earning potential, personality, and logistics. Our upbringing, location, social circle, and religion all play a part in defining how gender will factor into our home lives. They also play a large role in how we view and are viewed in our professional lives.

When a situation, personal or professional, lacks clearly-defined expectations, there is much room for disappointment. It is difficult to meet the needs and expectations of your partner if you don’t know what they are. Because gender roles are constantly changing, we often don’t even know ourselves what we expect from ourselves and our partners.

If the man’s job is more financially valuable to the household, it makes him more likely to play the role of breadwinner. Let’s say a family has four children, and one partner has an earning potential below the cost of childcare for the kids. It obviously makes sense for that partner to stay at home with the children. Traditionally, that partner would be the woman, but – in today’s society – it doesn’t matter whether the partner at home is a man or a woman. (Again, this only addresses heterosexual relationships.)

Because women earn an average of $0.80 per every $1.00 that men earn for the same work, if a man and woman perform the same professional job duties and work the same hours, the man will earn 25% more money. This is the point at which gender discrimination enters the picture, strictly from a financial perspective.

Arguments arise when two partners are both working full-time hours and one person (usually the woman) feels she is expending more energy in the home while expending the same amount of energy at work as her partner. We all have internalized gender attitudes, even if we intellectually approach things from a more progressive perspective, and this can often lead to women doing most of the laundry, cleaning, and cooking – regardless of whether both partners work full time outside of the home.

While gender roles are evolving rapidly, gender expectations are moving at a much slower pace. In general, women are expected to be the ones to take time off to stay home with a sick child, to do most of the errand running and homemaking, and to make most of the sacrifices that take time and energy away from a career and place it into running a household. In a traditional household, this is fair. In a modern double-income household, it is not. These extra duties adversely affect her career potential, and they can even adversely affect her health if she is exhausting herself by working a full-time job and then trying to do the full-time job of homemaking in her “spare” time.

Many married working mothers admit that they feel like single mothers because they do not have the help around the house in a home where both partners have a full-time job. These women would be much happier in their lives, families, and careers if they had help running the household. Even the attitude that the woman needs “help” is an internalized social construct. Why would working to maintain a happy, healthy household be any more her responsibility than her partner’s?

Men and women can and should decide for themselves which partner does what amount of work outside the home and who performs which domestic duties. What works for one couple doesn’t work for another. The most important thing is that both partners are on the same page. This requires an open dialogue. When we sweep disappointment and resentment under the rug, it grows.

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