Waves of Change or Challenge?

Posted Wednesday, November 28th, 2012| Comments Off on Waves of Change or Challenge? rule
The global context of gender roles
Rucha Bhate
Doctoral Research Assistant
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College

Phone: 617.552.6954
Email: bhate@bc.edu
  • Across the globe, women’s labor force participation has witnessed a dramatic surge in the past few decades. At the same time, the number of people regardless of gender who advocate equality of gender roles at home and at work is increasing.
  • Nevertheless, despite constituting more than half of the world’s population, women own 1 percent of the world’s wealth and continue to lag behind men in terms of income, career advancement and access to credit (2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development). Moreover, still today, women shoulder most of the domestic responsibilities and spend significantly more time in unpaid work than men in many countries.

These statements represent two facets of gender equality: how far women have come and how far they still have to go. The contradictions between them are striking. However, an analysis of responses to a 2010 survey conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College suggests that they mask more subtle differences in perception of the gender-based division of work and family responsibilities across nations. The survey involved 11 countries and 11,000 respondents—all employees of multinational companies. We aggregated the survey results by country and specifically focused on gender roles. We wanted to know, how globally prevalent is the traditional gender-based division of roles that keeps women at home and encourages men to earn money and advance their careers?

To answer this question, we viewed the survey responses through the lens of a paradigm devised by the organizational scientist Geert Hofstede, which expresses cross-national differences by the gender dimension(masculinity versus femininity) to assess how different cultures assign traditional gender roles. We found that sociocultural influences do indeed shape perspectives about gender equality. According to the survey results, societies deemed to be relatively feminine by Hofstede’s paradigm—such as the United States, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Brazil— are much more attuned to the necessity of gender role equality at home and at work. In contrast, for relatively masculine societies—like Japan and China—embracing gender equality in all spheres is a struggle. Instead, many Asian employees surveyed seem to cling to deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs indicating that women should be submissive and concentrate on domestic duties and childrearing.

Here’s one example of this pattern. Almost 90 percent of all respondents (men and women) in the United States disagreed with the gender-based stratification of work and family life— an encouraging sign for advocates of gender equality here. In contrast, only about half of the male respondents in Japan disagreed with this notion.

It should, however, be noted that these national belief systems are not permanent. The socioeconomic and cultural landscapes of countries change, and therefore questions about gender roles should be duly revisited and evaluated across the globe.

Gender equality is not simply a matter of intellectual curiosity or even social justice. Many studies have shown that economies improve when women have access to education, employment, and financial resources and can claim equal footing with men in key domains of decision making. For gender equality to become a global reality, the gender biases ingrained in male-dominated cultures will have to be identified and constantly challenged.


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