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.