Work/family gender roles are changing … even if the media portrayals of them aren’t.

Work and family nexusIt may be the year 2014, but many people continue to wander gracelessly through the gender minefield when it comes to the workplace.

We saw this in spades two weeks ago, when the Today Show’s Matt Lauer asked General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra how she successfully balanced her role as CEO of a large corporation with that of being a Mom.

Mr. Lauer was excoriated for asking the question, with criticism coming from all quarters (left and right).  He was accused of sexist questioning.  Several commentators pointed out that he had never asked such a question of the male top executives he had interviewed earlier at GM and Chrysler.

Mr. Lauer correctly noted that Ms. Barra had addressed this very issue proactively in a magazine article, and hence he thought the line of questioning was fair game.

Still, the fact that a flurry of controversy was stirred up at all reminds us how emotionally charged questions about gender roles continue to be, several generations after the birth of the feminist movement.

In point of fact, gender roles have been evolving pretty rapidly in the past two or three decades.  Sparked by economic and employment forces as well as changes in social norms, more men than ever are choosing to stay home with family, even as the participation of women in the workforce has reached all-time highs.

And field research conducted in May 2014 by consulting firm Insights in Marketing suggests that it’s men more than women who now feel that they’re facing struggles and stigmas associated with achieving a good work/family balance.  To wit:

Among men surveyed who have children under the age of 18, ~35% report that they are “feeling more torn between work and family” … whereas with women with children under the age of 18, only ~26% report the same feelings.

Here’s another result from the same survey:  By a 57% to 41% margin, men are more likely than women to agree with the following statement:  “A man’s primary duty is to financially provide for his family.”

Those figures may not come as a surprise.

By contrast, nearly the same percentages of men (78%) and women (74%) disagree with the statement that “A woman’s primary duty is to be a full-time caretaker for her family.”

According to the research summary issued by Insights in Marketing, these findings suggest that certain gender stereotypes are no longer accurate:  Society truly accepts (and even expects) women to be a part of the workforce, while expecting men to care only about their careers.

Instead, the survey reveals much more similarities than differences in how women and men see their family and work roles:

  • ~81% of women surveyed feel that their first obligation is to their home and family … and ~75% of the men surveyed feel the same way.
  •   ~48% of men surveyed feel that their career gives their lives purpose … but ~40% of the women surveyed also reported the same feeling.

Even though real change is happening on the ground, it’ll probably take more time before we start seeing the change being reflected in popular culture — and so that Matt Lauer can ask a question without incurring the wrath of a thousand baying wolves.

Remember that, too, the next time you see a TV commercial for laundry detergent.  You know — the one where Dad is some doofus who puts way too much soap in the washing machine and then can’t figure out when to add the fabric softener …

More findings from the Insights in Marketing report are available here.

College aspirations: Talk versus action.

College participation ratesPollsters like to point out that people will sometimes voice an opinion about an activity, a product or a political candidate — but what they say doesn’t match the reality.

If that’s the case, it makes the recent revelation that ~42% of ~500 Austrians surveyed in a Market Institut poll believe that Adolf Hitler’s rule “wasn’t all bad” even more scary than it sounds at first blush.

Bringing things back closer to home, a report issued in August 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics states that ~96% of female high school seniors want to go to college … and that among male seniors, it’s only a tad lower at ~90%.

But here’s the actual reality: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that fewer than 60% of 18-24 year olds are actually enrolled in college or have earned their higher education degree.

Enrolling in college doesn’t necessarily mean graduating, either. Only one-third of 25-34 year olds held a college degree as of 2011 (36% of women and 28% of men).

Why aren’t kids going to college even though the vast majority of high school seniors say they want to attend? There are the predictable reasons:

  • Can’t afford college tuition
  • Entered the workplace instead
  • Didn’t graduate from high school (~16% of 18-24 year olds haven’t actually earned their high school diplomas)

But perhaps we’re beginning to see bit of a shift in thinking, too.

Most parents – and many school systems as well – hold up college prep as the primary objective of high school curricula and learning-related activities. But some may be looking at the less-than-lucrative job prospects of graduating college seniors and realizing that the traditional four-year college course of study isn’t the clear ticket to a gainful career that it once was.

Online learning, distance learning, technical training and hands-on mentoring are other post secondary education options that may looking more viable to some — particularly males.

In fact, fewer than 50% of males are enrolling in four-year educational institutions following high school, while for females, it’s closer to 75%. 

It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out over the coming decade.  Perhaps then we’ll have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to see if these trends were a potent of bad things society … or not.

Are younger Americans turning their backs on manufacturing careers?

What are the attitudes of young Americans toward pursuing manufacturing as a career? A recent field research project gives us some clues – and the results don’t paint a very pretty picture.

The national survey was sponsored by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International and was administered to ~500 teenage respondents. The poll found that a majority of teenagers (~52%) have little or no interest in a manufacturing career and another 21% are ambivalent, leaving only around one quarter showing any interest at all in considering manufacturing as a career path.

When asked why a career in manufacturing is not attractive to them, the top four reasons cited by respondents were:

 Prefer to have a professional career: 61%
 Prefer a job with better pay: 17%
 Wish to have better career growth than manufacturing would provide: 15%
 Don’t want to do the physical work: 14%

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by these results, because manufacturing has never had quite the cachet of a professional career. But with the number of people graduating from college these days with no meaningful job prospects, it’s a bit ironic that teens still consider the traditional college degree/professional career launch pad as the better way to go.

Indeed, there are a good many misconceptions about “dirty” manufacturing work activities that are completely at odds with the reality. In fact, many manufacturing personnel work with the most advanced, sophisticated equipment and systems that require the kind of high-tech computer skills young people love to apply! And advanced technologies like robotics are to be found in manufacturing more than in any other industry.

Here are several other sobering findings from the FMAI survey:

 Six in ten teens have never toured a factory – or even stepped inside any kind of manufacturing facility – in their life.

 Only about one-quarter of teens have ever enrolled in an industrial arts or shop class.

 ~85% of teens spend two hours or less in any given week “working with their hands” on projects such as models or woodworking (30% spend no time at all on such pursuits during the week).

Here’s a thought: Could kids’ ambivalence about manufacturing be influenced by what’s perceived as “cool” in the career world?

TV programs, when they deal with the working world at all, aggrandize the careers of lawyers, doctors and law enforcement officers … or big business tycoons à la Donald Trump. Many school administrators tend to focus on only one “honorable” education trajectory for students – the traditional university degree.

Certainly in today’s economy, manufacturing jobs are being hammered just as much as employment is in many other industries. But despite the current situation, I think it’s possible more parents would support the idea of their children pursuing a manufacturing career – or a career in trades like welding or electrical – if the pursuit these types of careers received a little more moral support from the wider society.