Working paper

Mothers, fathers and the intergenerational transmission of gender role attitudes

Family dynamics Gender stereotypes Parenting and guardianship Australia

Traditional gender beliefs play an important role in (re-)producing gender inequalities, and trends towards gender egalitarianism have stalled. As such, identifying factors that contribute to individuals upholding traditional versus egalitarian gender-role attitudes is an important scholarly endeavour. While previous studies have identified critical predictors—such as religion, education and parenthood—intergenerational influences have received little empirical attention. Drawing upon gender-socialization theory, we derive hypotheses about how parental attitudes towards gender roles are transmitted to their children, considering differences between mothers’ and fathers’ influences, parental (dis)agreement in attitudes, and moderation by child’s gender. We then test these hypotheses using unique, high-quality data from a national sample of Australian 14/15-year-old adolescents (Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children).

We find substantial intergenerational correlations in gender-role attitudes: parents who spouse comparatively traditional (egalitarian) gender-role attitudes have children who also espouse comparatively traditional (egalitarian) gender-role attitudes. Paternal and maternal attitudes exert a similar degree of influence on their children’s attitudes, and have complementary rather than cumulative effects. When one parent held gender-egalitarian attitudes (regardless of that parent’s gender), the influence of the other parent’s attitudes on the child diminished. In other words, egalitarianism seems to trump traditionalism when there is parental disagreement in gender-role attitudes. While fathers’ attitudes influence sons’ and daughters’ attitudes equally, mothers’ attitudes influence daughters’ attitudes more than sons’. It seems therefore that, in our Australian sample, mothers play a particularly salient role in the gender socialization of their daughters.

Altogether, our findings provide strong, contemporary evidence that family influences play a pivotal role in the maintenance of the status quo concerning normative beliefs about the appropriate roles of men and women in society. To the extent that these beliefs impact on men’s and women’s relative life chances, such intergenerational influences also contribute to the reproduction of gender inequalities. Yet our findings provide also a glimpse of hope: egalitarianism is “intergenerationally stickier” than traditionalism, and so we may expect steady—though perhaps slow—movement towards more gender-egalitarian societies through cohort replacement. Further, if reducing gender biases in contemporary societies is a policy goal, then our findings indicate that interventions that target parents will have significant flow on effects for the next generation.

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Life Course Centre Working Paper No. 2020-05