An Australian study has set the traditional-role-division cat among the gender equality pigeons: the tide of opinion seems to have swung against the feminist ideal of an equal division of domestic and market work between husbands and wives.

Janeen Baxter, a professor of sociology at the University of Queensland, asked Australians (in general, apparently, not just those who have dependent children) five times between 1986 and 2005 five questions about gender equality. She found that men and women became more egalitarian in their views until the mid-1990s.

Since then support has stalled for the proposition that ”ideally there should be as many women as men in important positions in government and business”; as has support for the proposition that ”there should be satisfactory childcare facilities so that women can take jobs outside the home.”

Increasing numbers have taken the conservative position on whether a working mother can be as good as an at-home mother, and on the superiority of the male breadwinner model. For example, 41 per cent of men endorsed the male breadwinner model in 2005 compared with 29.6 per cent in 2001. And 74 per cent of women in 2005 thought at-home mothers were better for children compared with 57 per cent in 2001.

Only one question bucked the trend – increasing numbers believed ”if both husband and wife work, they should share equally in the housework and childcare”.

Interestingly, these results are consistent with research by Professor Brad Wilcox on the happiness of American wives. The key concept when it came to division of household tasks was not equality but fairness — fairness based on the husband working more outside the home and the wife more within it when there are dependent children at home.

American wives, even wives who hold more feminist views about working women and the division of household tasks, are typically happier when their husband earns 68% or more of the household income. Husbands who are successful breadwinners probably give their wives the opportunity to make choices about work and family—e.g., working part-time, staying home, or pursuing a meaningful but not particularly remunerative job—that allow them to best respond to their own needs, and the needs of their children.

Wilcox has pointed out that previous research into the correlation between egalitarian attitudes and marital happiness has not distinguished between spouses with children at home and those who are childless or whose children have left home.

Baxter’s research seems to show that people are thinking more about the good of children, and about the value of the mother’s role in the home. Moreover it is younger adults who are thinking like that, as Baxter said in an interview:

BRONWYN HERBERT: Professor Baxter says the study also finds Generation Y or people born after 1980 hold more conservative views.

JANEEN BAXTER: The younger cohorts are more conservative, than older cohorts on some of these gender items. I was surprised by that. The trends that I am finding in Australia are very similar to what people have found in the UK and the US.

But the following quote shows that she is kind of stuck on the ideological goal of literal equality rather than a division of tasks that brings a sense of fairness and solidarity within a marriage:

She suggested many people had ”given up on the view” equality was possible due to the experience of working mothers. Part-time work meant mothers still did most of the childcare and housework. ”In the absence of policies that support a reasonable work-life balance, it’s been very difficult for men and women to share care and paid work equally,” she said. ”You can understand why women in particular might be ambivalent and questioning of some goals of the women’s movement.”

Perhaps because they are neither practical for raising a family nor necessary to the recognition of equal dignity between men and women.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet