Dissertation Research

Trusting Men with Children: How Essentialist Beliefs Stalled the Gender Revolution

Summary. In the past fifty years, women’s lifestyles and behaviors have changed at a significantly faster pace than men’s. This asymmetric change is particularly evident in the realm of care work, where women continue to perform the lion’s share of labor, both within their own families and as paid employees. The scarcity of men acting as primary caregivers crosses many domains; single and stay-at-home fathers remain rare, and male babysitters, rarer yet. My dissertation identifies individual, normative, and institutional factors which limit men’s participation in the realm of childcare. Using data from a series of online survey experiments, I show that perceptions of men as insufficient and inherently inferior caregivers may act as barriers to men’s increased involvement in the lives of children. In a series of three studies, I identify a variety of ways that essentialist beliefs and normative expectations actively reproduce the uneven division of childcare in both paid and unpaid care settings. Overall, I argue that thoroughly addressing gender inequality must involve acknowledging that domestic and labor-force activities are two sides of the same coin; increasing women’s earnings is dependent on our ability to more evenly balance out the gender division of caregiving.

Study 1. The first study focuses on how social expectations can shape the division of childcare between mothers and fathers. Using a nationally representative conjoint survey experiment, I test whether mothers and fathers who meet socially prescribed normative expectations – staying home and working, respectively – are judged as more dedicated parents and more likely to be awarded custody in the case of parental separation, relative to those who fail to meet such expectations. Findings demonstrate a maternal preference arises in cases where the mother and father have previously divided care evenly. Fathers who deviate from the breadwinner model by staying home are also significantly less likely to be given custody of their children. These findings show that Americans still hold traditional views on parenthood, expecting mothers to act as primary caregivers and fathers to act as providers. The results of this study contribute to a growing literature on how the uneven division of care work contributes to broader economic gender gaps.

Study 2. In the second study, I examine individual attitudes toward men’s participation in paid care work. Using a nationally representative conjoint survey experiment, I demonstrate how essentialist views on caregiving lead to negative evaluations of male childcare workers. Findings indicate a significant preference for hiring women over men in the realm of childcare, even after controlling for candidate quality, wages, and qualifications. I argue that discomfort with male caregiving stems from both an assumption that men are deficient nurturers as well as an expectation that they will exploit their intimate access to vulnerable populations for sexual gain. Individuals who believe that caregiving abilities and aggression are largely biologically determined are found to rate male caregivers as less nurturing and higher risk. These empirical findings are consistent with what is described by qualitative researchers, who have noted that male childcare workers often encounter queries about their status, expressed as surprise at their presence, disbelief in their abilities, or suspicion about their motives. This study is among the first to experimentally test how public beliefs and attitudes on gender and caregiving may perpetuate occupational segregation in the realm of care work.

Study 3. The third study focuses on the question of whether men would be willing to participate in paid care work if given the opportunity. Through a nationally representative online survey experiment, I test variation in men’s and women’s preferences for working in paid childcare relative to other low-wage occupations. Findings demonstrate that holding wages constant, women prefer traditionally female-dominated jobs relative to those dominated by men. Men’s preferences were less closely tied to occupational gender composition, with men showing no discernible preference for male-dominated jobs (e.g. dishwashers, construction workers) relative to female-dominated jobs (e.g. childcare workers, home health aides). While scholars have called attention to the lake of male integration into caring occupations, the supply-side mechanisms leading to this gender gap had not previously been explored in a controlled setting.

Research on Romantic and Sexual Relationships

Commitment Timing in Same-Sex and Different-Sex Relationships (Link)

Using the representative and longitudinal dataset How Couples Meet and Stay Together (HCMST), we analyze the relative timing of relationship formation and cohabitation entry among same-sex and different-sex couples. In doing so, we consider the extent to which gender and sexuality affect private negotiations regarding the progression of intimate relationships. We find that rates of romantic relationship initiation are highest for male same-sex couples relative to female same-sex couples and different-sex couples. Contrary to popular conceptions of lesbians as eager to commit, our results indicate that after controlling for couple age there are no significant differences in relative rates of cohabitation among couple types.

Citation: Orth, Taylor and Michael Rosenfeld. 2018. “Commitment Timing in Same-Sex and Different-Sex Relationships.” Population Review 57(1):1-19.

Sexual Behavior and Satisfaction in Same-Sex and Different-Sex Relationships

For many years, scholars have argued that male and female sexuality are fundamentally different and that men and women in sexual relationships negotiate these differences. Given that scientific data on sex is difficult to collect and often challenging to analyze, very little empirical evidence has been available to evaluate the veracity of this claim.This study evaluates gender differences in sexual behavior and satisfaction among same-sex and different-sex couples through an analysis of two nationally representative surveys, How Couples Meet and Stay Together (HCMST) and The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). Findings suggest that sexual frequency is significantly lower for female same-sex couples relative to different-sex or male same-sex couples. In regard to sexual satisfaction, male same-sex couples report significantly lower satisfaction relative to other couples. Additionally, sex frequency appears to matter more for female satisfaction than it does for male satisfaction. Overall, the results from this study support the notion that sexual relationships function differently in the absence of a male partner, but present a more complex picture than has been previously accepted.