Are men and women's roles in society changing?

working woman with baby
Many women struggle to balance work and family.

Among the many news stories dedicated to the recession that gripped the United States in the late 2000s were several pieces that asked whether the economic downturn had led to a change in traditional gender roles. More than 80 percent of the jobs lost during the recession had belonged to men, which led to women holding the majority of jobs in the United States for the first time ever [source: Rampell]. Men who lost their jobs were employed in fields like construction and finance, whereas the women had been in slightly steadier fields like teaching and health care, fields where there will always be a demand for workers. With their husbands unemployed, women would now take on the role of breadwinner, while the men would take care of the home.

The tipping of the employment scales due to the recession isn't expected to be permanent, and the recession wasn't the only catalyst in changing gender roles. Men and women's roles in society have been changing for decades now. Traditionally, men have worked outside the home and served as the sole breadwinner for the family. They held some of the most powerful jobs in society, including doctor, lawyer and politician. Women, on the other hand, governed the domestic sphere. They were expected to stay home, raise children and have an evening meal waiting for their husbands. If they did work, it was as a secretary, a nurse or another stereotypically female profession.


Women in the U.S. got one of their first tastes of the working world during World War II. The men went to war, and the women went to the factories and offices. Though the women returned to their homes after the war, they didn't remain there for long. The social changes of the 1960s and 1970s caused a cultural revolution that found many women pursuing careers outside the home. In recent years, more men have expressed a desire to take on the role of primary caregiver to the children.

That doesn't mean these changes have been easy. Men have had to struggle with what masculinity means to them if they're not the sole breadwinner. Women have to deal with making less than men in wages and a difficult time advancing to the highest positions within a company. Women are also subjected to the "Mommy Wars" -- a set of battles between working moms and stay-at-home moms in which each side declares that the other side is irreparably harming their children.

And while the recession may have forced more men to stay home, they didn't necessarily pick up the bulk of the housework or childcare. The New York Times reported that unemployed dads spent about as much time caring for their children as their working counterparts did; the laid-off dads made finding a new job their foremost priority [source: Rampell]. This state of affairs is probably not unfamiliar to working moms, who have long dealt with the so-called "second shift," in which they come home from their stint in the professional world only to spend just as much time cooking, cleaning and caring for children.

Though change is still in the air, there's no doubt that men and women's roles have become less strictly defined, and many families have made the male and female roles more egalitarian when it comes to jobs, housework and childcare.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Cavendish, Lucy. "Motherhood: stay-at-home or back-to-work? The battle continues." The Observer. March 28, 2010. (Sept. 14, 2010)
  • Hawke, Lucy A. "Gender Roles within American Marriage: Are They Really Changing?" ESSAI. 2008. (Sept. 14, 2010)
  • Jayson, Sharon. "Family life, roles changing as couples seek balance." USA Today. April 19, 2009. (Sept. 14, 2010)
  • Mintz, Steven. "Mothers and Fathers in America: Looking Backward, Looking Forward." Digital History, University of Houston. (Sept. 14, 2010)
  • Parker-Pope, Tara. "Gay Unions Shed Light on Gender in Marriage." New York Times. June 10, 2008. (Sept. 14, 2010)
  • Rampell, Catherine. "As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force." New York Times. Feb. 6, 2009. (Sept. 14, 2010)
  • Rosin, Hanna. "The End of Men." The Atlantic. July/August 2010. (Sept. 14, 2010)
  • Sherif Trask, Bahira. "Traditional Gender Roles." Sloan Work and Family Research Network of Boston College. Aug. 29, 2006. (Sept. 14, 2006)