An incomplete revolution or the start of counter-revolution?

Geoff Dench

by Geoff Dench

The BSA 30th report manages, despite its evidence of new trends, to put a feminist spin on changing gender attitudes among women:

“In the mid-1980s, close to half the public agreed, “a man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”. Just 13% subscribe to this view now. This decline is primarily a result of generational replacement, with consecutive generations being less supportive of traditional gender roles.” British Social Attitudes Survey 2012, 30th Report P115.

However, the overall picture conveyed by the data itself is that not only are younger women’s attitudes steadily going back towards more traditional orientations, but their views are more traditional than their mothers. We will in due course present a detailed analysis to put the record straight; but in the meantime here are a few pointers to what is really going on.

The main omission in the BSA interpretation is its failure to point out that there is a tendency for young women to return towards more traditional views. The BSA line is that there has been an, 'incomplete revolution' in gender roles and views. But if you look at women aged eighteen to thirty nine (a group containing many young mothers) it is clear that these young women have many ideas that are closer to their grandmothers' than their mothers'!

In years before 2012 there was a steady gradient, in age terms, for most gender attitudes (with younger women expressing more 'progressive' opinions). So it was reasonable to assume that there was a continuing shift towards these positions. But this gradient stopped in 2012, to be replaced by a pattern (as shown in the tables that follow) where the most 'progressive' views are held by middle-aged women (baby boomers) while younger women are moving back towards those held by older women. This is not an incomplete revolution; it is more like the start of a counter-revolution.

At the same time, there are signs that the retreat from traditional sexual divisions of labour, in which men work while women look after the home, has come to an end and may even be going into reverse. Among young mothers, there were more living in such households in the years 2007-2012 than in 2001-2006. The official BSA report neglects to mention any of this.

On gender role attitudes the BSA focused on the response to one of the several statements on this – on the one that was atypical! The other responses reveal a different trend, making it no longer reasonable to suppose traditional values are on their way out.

By contrast they show that in 2012, young women are no longer the most work-centred and ‘liberated’; that they are more likely to agree with their grannies than their mothers. The next few tables illustrate this change in pattern in gender attitudes.

Table 1

In 2012 just under one in three young women think that a pre-school child suffers if his mother works; up by 8 percentage points from 2002, nearly twice as many as their mothers’ generation and more even than their grandmothers’, with whom they more equate.

Table 2

TABLE 2 (above) shows a dramatic reversal of young women’s attitudes since 2002. The proportion of young women believing that what most women really want is a home and children has doubled in the last 10 years. This is also double the number of women of their mother’s generation believing this in 2012, but not quite as many as their grandmas’ generation.

Table 3

Table 3 shows a higher proportion of women of all ages in 2012 believe that being a housewife is just as fulfilling as working for pay, than in 1994. But the biggest change once more is amongst the younger women, who have moved closer in their opinions to their grandma‘s generation.

The only response not to conform with this pattern of increasing conservatism of younger women is in relation to one statement which polarized the gender divide, as shown in Table 4. On this young women’s views have not changed since 1994. Whether adding ‘mainly’ (to earn the money etc) to the very bald statement given would have altered their response is a moot point.

Table 4

 It is also notable that very few women of any age group in 1994 agreed that where there is a pre-school child a woman should work full time outside the home – just 6% overall. And by 2012 even fewer agreed - this number dropping to just 4% - the main drop being amongst the young women (see Table 5) showing an overall conservative trend. This is despite the period between 2002 and 2012 seeing the steepest rise of ‘pre-school’ mothers in full employment than ever before.

Table 5

What is notable in all these responses is that, in 2012, the most work-centred/’ family ‘liberated’ responses come from the middle-age women (the boomers who grew up with the feminist ‘revolution’ of Germaine Greer, MS magazine and Cosmopolitan)

This holds for a number of new questions appearing in the survey for the first time, as shown in Table 6:

Table 6

Once again the younger women are more conservative than their mothers though still less so than their grandmothers.

Table 7

Nearly half of all young women believe the man should be the main family breadwinner. In this they again express more traditional beliefs than the 40-59 age group , though the grandma generation is still more conservative.

Table 8

Table 8 is a difficult response to interpret. It is not altogether clear whether a greater gender exchange role of men in the family or whether men being (financially) responsible for the family is meant to make men more caring. If the latter, it shows once again the younger women hold a more traditional view, one  in between that of their mothers and grandmothers.

It is also interesting that in 2012, despite ‘equalities legislation’ and increasing pressure on young women to return to work soon after the birth of their children, virtually none of the young women groups believe both parents should work full time with a young child (Table 9). It is their mothers’ (the boomers) generation who are the most likely to agree with this.

Table 9

On the second statement in Table 9, the grandmothers’ generation response is the most traditional, followed by the youngest women who, on this, are closer to their mother’s generation.  But since there is no time series data to compare this with, it is impossible to know which direction opinion is moving in.

Table 10

Finally, Table 10 suggests that again the baby-boomers generation are the most likely to agree with positions against ‘traditional’ roles. These responses are against a background of growing incentives for women with young children to continue to work full time, including tax benefits, and tax credit benefits, cheaper state-subsidised childcare and flexible working laws and a socio-economic climate that ‘demands’ two earner families.

All in all then, a very different picture of changing attitudes than that painted by the BSA summary.


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Anonymous - About 1290 days ago

It is always worth listening to what Geoff Dench has to say because he examines the evidence with a clear eye, uninfluenced by prevailing orthodoxies. What he finds in the BSA attitudes closely reflects what young women with children are increasingly saying if you talk to them, especially well educated professional women who might be expected to get the greatest satisfaction from their work. Whether this represents uncompleted revolution or the beginnings of a counterrevolution or simply natural good sense may not be the point. Policy makers of all parties should take note.

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