The cost of conformity


The cost of conformity: How respecting gender expectations about paid and family work  might make us vulnerable on the long run

Despite some gender convergence since World War II, research show that large gaps remain between men and women across European countries for participation in paid work, the attainment of managerial positions and the achievement of high income levels, as well as closeness and time spent with children. Women and men develop distinct working and family trajectories, with the transition to parenthood as a turning point.

One explanatory factor for such gaps that myself and colleagues have been considering in my research within NCCR LIVES relates to the enduring impact of social norms about gender relationships. In many contemporary Western societies, new fathers are still expected by social norms to become the main breadwinners, and only subsequently to participate in child care and family work, whereas new mothers are still expected to take major responsibilities for the regular care of the infant and family life, and only subsequently for paid work. As shown by the International Social Survey Program 2012, dedicated to the issues of family relationships and gender (ISSP Research Group, 2014) a majority across major European countries strongly feels that the mother of a preschool child should only work part-time or even not at all.

Social norms about paid work of women according to the age of their children : « Should women with kids work full time, part-time or stay home? Source : International Social Survey Programe, Gender module, 2012 ( ISSP Research Group, 2014).

There are negative consequences of complying with such gender norms regarding the division of child care and paid work for a large number, if not a majority, of women and men in contemporary Western society. How such gendered division of paid and family work may turn dysfunctional for individuals? As part-time paid work trajectories are associated with lower income, less benefits and lower prospect of getting managerial positions, gender norms create a divide in terms of economic sustainability between fathers, who usually continue to work full time for pay after the transition to parenthood, and mothers, who strongly reduce paid work.

Separation and divorce are turning points where the advantages associated with conformity to gender norms, such as decreasing the stress created by situations where both parents work full time for pay turn into disadvantages. Part-time work trajectories of mothers become dysfunctional in the context of divorce as they make mothers more likely to experience poverty in late adulthood, whereas overinvestment in paid work make fathers more likely to loose contact with their children after a divorce.

In Western societies that are characterized by a large proportion of marriages that end in divorce, such unexpected effects concern millions of individuals. Interestingly, although divorce rates are high in many national contexts, cultural inertia continues to stress marriage permanence as the only proper way to go, and divorce as a last resort solution. Because of this normative rejection of divorce, many individuals do not include it as an option in their life planning, and thus undervalue the risk that is associated with a stringent division of paid and family work among them and their partners on the long run.  

Mothers and fathers are negatively impacted by misleading gender norms. The Vivre/Leben/Vivere (VLV) study—a large interdisciplinary survey on the life and health conditions of people who are 65 years and olders—showed that divorced aging men are overrepresented in situations that are characterized by a lack of interactions with family members. The fathers’ connections with their children often depend on their links to their female partner. When such links are severed through divorce or separation, the connections between fathers and their children often suffer or end, with negative consequences for the relational resources that are available to aging men in old age.

Research provided evidence that the density of personal networks (networks which include family members, friends, colleagues and in some cases neighbors), measured before the birth of a child, significantly shapes the participation of individuals in paid work during the transition to parenthood. Women in a personal network with a high density of ties experienced a larger reduction in their rate of participation in paid work during this transition, whereas men in such situations were less likely than other men to reduce their occupational rate. Women feel a stronger pressure than that felt by men to fulfil the role of a “less-working” parent, especially when they have a strongly interconnected emotional support network.

Dense personal networks are composed of highly interconnected individuals, specifically individuals who know and possibly interact with each other regularly. As all significant network members are interconnected, their likely normative influence becomes stronger. Then, the transition to parenthood is associated with an increased presence of family members within personal networks. Indeed, the new born constitutes a focus point on which relationships between the new parents and their parents and siblings are reinforced. The older generations invest in the new role of becoming grandparents and, accordingly new activities and occasions for meeting are created across family generations. Thus, kin from older generations become overrepresented compared with friends and such influence is rather conservative as it stems from people who experienced the transitions in older times. The norms that underpin this gendered division of labor are diffused through interconnected conservative influences from grandparents.

Individuals in dense networks less often exhibit innovative and alternative models of the division of labor in comparison with less dense networks, in which the focal individuals develop strong ties with a variety of network members unrelated with each other. Such misleading norms are produced or reproduced by the mismatch between actual social constraints, as experienced by cohorts of young adults entering parenthood, and the normative influence of their own parents, who lived this transition under a different set of social and economical constraints.

Why does all this matter? After all, in the mind of many, the division of paid work and child care between fathers and mothers was, is and should stay a private decision. Such divide has however huge social, relational and economic costs. For instance, divorce only is both a cause of loneliness (for men) in old age and a main source of poverty across Europe.  The distribution of tasks may be considered private but we have to deal with its consequences as a society.

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