Why the rush for gender equality has stalled

Women rushed to change their lives in the 60s and 70s, but their progress has stalled now. Flickr/Maciek Zygmunt

No one is too surprised today if a young woman becomes a doctor, lawyer, or executive. But eyebrows are raised just about as much today as in decades past if a couple features a tall woman and short man, or when a woman doesn’t change her last name upon marriage.

The gender revolution, those sweeping changes in women’s opportunities and roles of the 1970s and 1980s, is stalled across most of the Western world. And there are some parts of women’s and men’s roles that hardly changed at all.

What changed dramatically after 1970 is the proportion of women going out to work for pay, and how many of them entered traditionally male professions. Indeed, in the United States today, almost half those getting graduate degrees in law, medicine, and business (MBA) are women.

Yet, there was never much in the way of a counter-flow; few men became stay-at-home dads or entered “female” jobs such as nursing, child care or secretarial work, nor do they do so today. Men had little incentive to do so because it is as true as ever that female-dominated occupations have lower pay than male-dominated jobs requiring the same amount of training.

The social class dimension

The gender revolution affected women differently by their social class. Even though they are more likely to have poor husbands, so their families could really use the money from their employment, women without university degrees are less likely to be employed than their better educated sisters.

This is partly because what they can earn will barely cover their child care costs. The well educated woman can earn more, and get a more interesting job, so her incentives for employment are greater.

Those working class women who did go out to work could have earned more money if, instead of working as maids and child care workers, they had entered predominantly male blue collar trades — as carpenters, drivers, welders, or mechanics.

But while college graduates were storming their way into the “male” professions, few women moved into these blue collar strongholds. Men fought to keep women out.

A job for your gender

Another way for these women to better their status and pay was to get more education and enter a better paying “female” job—say as a nurse or teacher.

So the gender revolution was mostly middle class women working to work in larger numbers and entering “male” professions.

But these changes have stalled out since the 1990s in Australia, the US, and many western nations. It is not a reversal so much as a plateau.

Personal lives

Meanwhile, in the personal sphere, some things changed very little. Young couples are just about as likely as in the 1950s to think men should be taller (just look at how the internet dating sites all ask about height).

Men are supposed to propose marriage and women to change their surnames upon marriage. Despite a sexual revolution, women are judged more harshly than men for having casual sex, and expected to worry more about their appearance and looking young.

Today’s young women understand just as their mothers and grandmothers did the sting of the “double standards” of sex and appearance, even for a balding, overweight suitor.

Many in the west think the women’s movement succeeded and the remaining gender inequalities we see are just natural. I disagree.

But changing the things that were most resistant to change—and reversing the stall would take a big effort by all of us.