Men In Traditional Marriages Are Less Likely To Promote Women At Work. Here’s What To Do About It

It is naïve to think that we can easily change the hearts and minds of those who benefit from the status quo, says Tamara Linse.

Men in traditional marriages are much more likely to deny promotion to women in the workplace, according to a study last year. In other words, if your boss is married to a woman who stays at home, you as a woman may not get that promotion, even if you’re qualified.

The study had several other key findings—that those same men are much more likely to view women in the workplace unfavorably, to perceive organizations with high numbers of women employees as operating less smoothly, and to view organizations with female leaders as “relatively unattractive.”

“The consistent pattern of results found across multiple studies employing multiple methods and samples demonstrates the robustness of the findings,” reports Sreedhari D. Desai (UNC Chapel Hill and Harvard), Dolly Chugh (NYU), and Arthur P. Brief (U of Utah).

Maybe we haven’t “come a long way, baby.”

What contributes to these persistent and robust beliefs? Do these men, consciously or unconsciously, believe in their privilege so much that they create structures around themselves that bolster these beliefs? Or do they choose social structures that enable them to continue to believe in this privilege? In other words, do internal beliefs cause the creation of social structures or do external social structures allow the continuation of beliefs? A chicken-and-egg question, to be sure.

Desai and her fellow social scientists reference a study done by Catherine Bolzendahl (Indiana U) and Daniel Myers (U of Notre Dame) on the evolution of feminist attitudes and support for equality from 1974 to 1998. Attitudes toward gender may be “interest-based” or “exposure-based,” Bolzendahl and Myers report.

Interest-based attitudes are beliefs that stem from what someone sees as in their self-interest—and consequently women are more likely to hold feminist beliefs than men, and women who work outside the home are much more likely to believe in gender equality. It is in their interest to do so. External actions stem from internal ideas.

Exposure-based attitudes come from immersion in structures that are more equal. “Individuals develop or change their understanding of women’s place in society and their attitudes when they encounter ideas and situations that resonate with feminist ideals,” say Bolzendahl and Myers. In other words, when women and men are surrounded by people and organizations that reflect gender equality, they are more likely to believe in gender equality. Internal beliefs stem from external structures.

“‘Dissonance’ results whenever one’s behavior violates some self-standards and such dissonance can result in attitude change,” Bolzendahl and Myers report. “When individuals occupy roles inconsistent with their gender attitudes, they adjust their attitudes to match their behaviors.”

Given that gender attitudes may be interest-based or exposure-based, how do we change attitudes, especially in “pockets of resistance” like the one outlined in the Desai study?

I think we as feminists have long fought to change hearts and minds. Many of us believe that, if we just could change people’s attitudes, social change will follow. Women will get the promotions they deserve and suddenly there will be more female CEOs. We just need to make people see that it is in everyone’s self-interest.

But in some cases, it is not in people’s self-interest to promote gender equality. Men in traditional marriages derive huge benefits from those structures. They are exempted from the upkeep of the home and the raising of the children. They get the promotions and raises at work. Their material circumstances are propelled by this inequality, as are the circumstances and attitudes of their stay-at-home spouses (as reported in Bolzendahl and Myers). It is naïve to think that we can easily change the hearts and minds of those who benefit from the status quo.

So, instead of simply trying to change beliefs and hoping for the best, we have to change the way the world itself works so that attitudes will adjust to fit. We need to take a page from the playbooks of previous waves of feminism and remake our social structures and organizations, a top-down approach. We have to pass legislation that has material effects on the inner workings of the home.

Do we have to do away with traditional marriages in order to achieve gender equality? That threat is certainly the fear of many conservative groups. I would say that traditional marriage is simply an ideal that many strive toward but is unachievable. Marriage in practice is as varied as there are people, and the concept of marriage has evolved drastically over time. It must continue to evolve.

Better minds than mine have long been working on ways to solve these problems, but here is a very limited list of legislation that would make a difference for gender equality.

  • Childcare — If women’s working outside the home has such an effect on all people’s attitudes toward gender equality, then the best way we could help women go to work is to provide quality childcare at a reasonable cost.
  • Education — Studies (e.g., this one) have long linked the educational attainment of mothers to the well-being of families. The more educational support we can provide to mothers, the better off their families will be, and the better jobs they’ll be eligible for.
  • Minimum wage — In 2011 in the U.S., 5 million more women than men lived in poverty, and a whopping 21.9 percent of children live in poverty. If our minimum wage was a living wage, families would not have to fill the gap with subsidy programs. More money means more power, which means more gender equity.
  • Domestic violence and rape legislation — No one should have to live in fear for their lives. This is gender inequality at its most extreme.

We literally have to change the world. We certainly need to continue to work to change people’s attitudes, but more importantly we need to change the way we do things. Only then will the “pockets of resistance” get on board.

Tamara Linse is a fiction writer and an editor for a university foundation in Wyoming. She writes the blog Writer, Cogitator, Recovering Ranch Girl and captures the world’s beauty in a photo Project 365. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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