Gender equality settles in at home, but not in certain jobs

Women have the upper hand at home, a new Pew Research Center study suggests. But is it because the house and children always have been women's territory, or is gender equality making its way into the family household?

The answer is as mixed as the data, experts say.

Of 1,260 individuals surveyed in four areas of decision-making in the typical American home, women had the final say in 43% of couples — almost twice that of men. Yet 31% of couples volunteered the information that they share in the decision-making, a response that wasn't even listed on the survey.

Sociologist and gender studies expert Michael Kimmel of Stony Brook University-New York says the responses suggest the path for couples is "far grayer" these days as couples weave in more equality.

"There's far more fluidity in family decision-making around these topics than ever before, and that's the real news," he says. "Sometimes she makes the plans, sometimes he does. It's who has the spare time."

Kimmel offers three ways to interpret the findings: "One is 'Only 43% of women make most of the decisions.' Another way is 'Couples are in their homes navigating and negotiating equality far more than ever before.' A third way to read it is 'In both very traditional couples and in very egalitarian couples, women's sphere of influence has always been the family purse. She pays the bills, decides which dinner parties they go to. He goes along with family projects.' "

Women hold purse strings

Tiffany Winbush, 26, of Manhattan has been married for 16 months after dating her husband almost four years. She says she manages the family's finances because she has always been more budget-conscious.

"I balance my checkbook every day, and my husband is a little bit more free," she says. "I decided to take the initiative when the bills came in."

That move was fine with her husband, 25-year-old Amos Winbush III.

"I never had a great interest in it, and it's tedious to go through the bills … she likes doing that sort of thing. I completely relinquished all of that to her," he says. "We go over bills when she's paying the bills."

She says they never sat down and had a conversation about dividing up their decision-making. "Everything just really fell in place and has worked out thus far."

In the Indianapolis family of Kathleen Schuckel, 45, Greg Andrews, 43, and their two sons, the division of labor is fairly typical.

"I've tended to be the person who handles bills and finances and taxes," Andrews says. "The roles have ended up being more traditional, where she's more planning for meals and making sure laundry has been done. Neither of us would make a major purchase without talking to the other."

Schuckel agrees. "I can't imagine making a major purchase without talking to Greg first," she says. "We're pretty flexible and have similar temperaments; after 18 years of marriage, we know where each other stands."

Making decisions equally is the "socially desired response" for couples today, but it's not necessarily the reality, says Megan Murphy, director of the marriage and family therapy program at Iowa State University-Ames and co-author of a study of 72 couples that also found women in charge at home.

"When it comes down to it, I really don't think we're there yet," she says. "People really don't make decisions equally. Women tend to make more decisions in terms of the home and taking care of the home and taking care of the kids. Men make more decisions in terms of the finances and around jobs."

Pew also looked outside the home and found many people are just as comfortable dealing with a man or woman in certain jobs, including doctor, banker, lawyer, police officer, airline pilot, teacher and surgeon.

Linda Basch, president of the New York City-based National Council for Research on Women, a network of research and policy centers, says the poll's responses appear to mirror our changing society.

"It shows that increasingly men, as well as women, see women taking on leadership positions and non-traditional roles, and see women having important leadership traits," she says.

Men are still preferred in some jobs

Among specific jobs, findings are mixed. Men were preferred in some positions, such as airline pilot, surgeon, police officer and attorney, while women were favored for elementary school teacher and banker. With doctors, women favored a woman, and men preferred a man.

"It's also still the case when we see women in these non-traditional positions, and we still use the word 'woman' as an adjective — a dentist or a woman dentist. With men, we don't notice gender as much as we do with women," Kimmel says. "It's not necessarily negative, but it's a way those stereotypes still float around in our heads."

Psychology professor David Vogel of Iowa State was the lead author of the study published last year in the Journal of Counseling Psychology that showed wives had greater marital power at home. He says gender is intertwined in any discussion of power and relationships.

"There's a myth out there that men are the heads of households and make the decisions, and that's it, but real life isn't like that, from what I see," says Murphy, Vogel's co-author. "It's more of a give-and-take and a negotiation. The vast majority of what I see is a much more nuanced decision-making process."

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