Paths to egalitarian gender attitudes differ

May 20, 2002

Among forerunners, or people who foreshadow the easing of traditional gender attitudes, men must grow up in a nontraditional household to become forerunners, but women develop forerunner attitudes through later life education and work experiences, researchers say.

"Forerunners are opinion leaders, who are far ahead of members of both the previous generation and their own generation," explains Dr. Scott Myers, assistant professor of sociology at Washington State University. "They believe that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men."

Myers and Dr. Alan Booth, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, examined the effects of being raised by forerunner parents on the development of forerunner gender attitudes. They published their results in the paper, "Forerunners of Change in Nontraditional Gender Ideology" in the March issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

Using data from the Panel Study on Marital Instability Across the Life Course, Myers and Booth compared the attitudes and behaviors of parents during the early upbringing of their children with the children's attitudes upon reaching adulthood. They sampled 646 offspring older than age 19 in 1997.

To become forerunners, sons rely on more factors than daughters do, they say. Early family life in a forerunner household is necessary for sons to become forerunners, but these same experiences have little direct influence on daughters.†

"Men need to have the direct experience with nontraditional parents in their early family life, or there is little chance they will become forerunners," they explain. "Forerunner sons will be from two-parent households where the mother works full time, and the father helps with the housework and childcare."

"Women mostly get their attitudes from education and entering the work force," says Booth, a research associate of Penn State's Population Research Institute. "So the daughter of non-forerunner parents may still become a forerunner, but there is very little in the early home life that directly influences her to become a forerunner."

While entering the work force frequently generates nontraditional attitudes in women, it often has the opposite effect on men, who enter into a traditional breadwinner role, and are reluctant to embrace nontraditional male behaviors, such as helping with housework and childcare.

Because forerunner parents are uncommon, many sons do not have these experiences at home, and tend to hold more traditional gender attitudes, Myers and Booth say, but women do not rely on their early family life.

"This may explain why men in general are so slow to pick up nontraditional behaviors," Booth says. "They need all these extra experiences that women don't require."

Penn State

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