Gender Equity is Thwarted by Old Expectations, CU-Boulder Team Finds

Published: April 9, 2010

Many studies have found that even as women have succeeded in historically male-dominated fields, they have not enjoyed a corresponding reduction in domestic work.

Research led by Bernadette Park, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder, helps to explain why. Men and women may see their work and home lives as equally shared, but how they act often differs from what they say they feel.

Even with strides in the job market, many women still must, to some degree, choose career or family, Park said. "Having both is much more difficult for women than it is for men," she said.

Park said women are expected to perform household and family chores to a greater degree than are men, even when men and women are under equal job stress. These attitudes and expectations, she shows in her research, can be measured and compared.

Park and her colleagues measure the perceived "warmth" and "competence" of men and women, perceived traits that are a subjective gauge of gender perception. She and her colleagues compared the results of a subjective questionnaire to those of an objective questionnaire that asked about expected behaviors, rather than traits, of men versus women. Measuring people's expectations gives a more candid picture of their deeply held beliefs, Park suggests.

In one article published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Park and colleagues J. Allegra Smith, a CU doctoral candidate, and Joshua Correll, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, surveyed 631 people at CU. Of those, 254 completed a subjective questionnaire that identified individual "traits" of two hypothetical people.

The man and woman were described as biomedical researchers with advanced degrees, married with two children and each working between 20 and 60 hours weekly.

Participants completing the questionnaire were asked to rate each spouse's traits regarding warmth, ability to nurture, good-naturedness or sincerity. Participants also rated each on competence-related traits including being capable, skillful and efficient.

Hypothetical people who each worked four 10-hour days a week and cared for children three days a week were seen as most competent, while those who worked more were seen as less warm. "Both of these effects were true to an equal extent for male and female targets," the authors wrote.

But those results -- how warm and competent men and women are perceived to be -- differed sharply from what men and women are expected to do, according to the study.

Another 377 people in the CU-Boulder-led study completed an objective questionnaire that identified the expected behaviors of the hypothetical couple, including a question on which spouse an injured child would go to for support.

When the hypothetical spouse was female, the expectation was higher; when it was male, the expectation was lower.

"At a behavioral level … the expectation remains that women perform a greater number of child-care and warmth-related behaviors than their male counterparts, even while maintaining an equivalent number of professional and work-related competence responsibilities," Park and her colleagues wrote.

At every level of hours worked, the hypothetical female was estimated to perform "warmth-related" behaviors at a higher frequency than the male, according to the research team.

Also, as the work hours increased, the hypothetical husband was expected to perform correspondingly fewer child-care responsibilities than the equally hard-working wife. "Looking at the objective measure of who does what … the data provide evidence that women ‘do it all,' " the team wrote.

In fact, the hypothetical wife who worked 60 hours per week was still expected to do an "average" amount of child care, whereas the expectation for men was well below the average mark, according to the study.

Park is continuing her work on gender-role dissimilarities through a $275,000 grant from the National Institute of Child and Human Development.

Generally speaking, dads are still seen as family leaders and disciplinarians, serving the same kinds of functions they do in professional life, Park said. Moms, on the other hand, are expected to be nurturing and compassionate. To the extent that those expectations are stable, she said, women are more likely than men to leave their careers because of family pressures, and they find it harder than men to re-enter their former jobs after taking a family-related hiatus.

In two related studies of 169 CU-Boulder students, Park, Smith and Correll found evidence that traditional expectations of moms and dads persist, and that women were more strongly associated with the role of mom than men were associated with the role of dad.

Further, they found that these implicit assumptions, which reflect traditional stereotypes, propel the expectation that, unlike men, women should resolve work-family conflicts by choosing family.

Partly because of the tug of family duties, women in challenging careers leave their fields at higher rates than do men, studies show. Once they leave, it's harder for them to re-enter career life, Park said.

"While there has been remarkable change in the presence of women in the workforce over the past 50 years, and corresponding changes in gender stereotypes, behavioral expectations of moms and dads appear to have changed much less," Park, Smith and Correll wrote.

For more on this story, see the current issue of Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine at To listen to Park talk about her study go to