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Gender Roles and Infant/Toddler Care: The Special Case of Tenure Track Faculty
Acknowledgements: We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. For
helpful comments on earlier drafts we thank Robert Emery, Steve Finch, Paul Freedman, Nancy Mendell,
Steve Nock, Diana Rhoads, Mary Stegmaier, Brad Wilcox and Charmaine Yoest.
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The present research examines the impact of parental leave policies and gender-role attitudes on the
distribution of childcare responsibilities in the families of 184 tenure-track assistant professors at U.S.
institutions. Utilization of paid parental leave policies by men is associated with higher levels of
participation in parenting tasks, as is a belief in non-traditional gender roles; however, even those male
professors who take leave and believe in non-traditional gender roles do much less childcare than female
Keywords: gender differences, gender roles, infant care, parental leave, women in academia, work/family
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Gender Roles and Infant/Toddler Care: The Special Case of Tenure Track Faculty
The revolutionary influx of women into the labor market over the past 50 years has been well
documented. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by the year 2008, women will form 48 percent
of the labor force (Fullerton, Jr., 1999). Sociologist Suzanne Bianchi believes that, “The most
revolutionary change in the American family in the twentieth century. . . has been the increase in the labor
force participation of women, particularly women with young children” (Bianchi, 2000: 401).
The increased participation of females in the workforce has not led to the demise of traditional gender
roles because men have not contributed in the domestic realm to the same extent that women have
contributed to family income through paid labor. Among the domestic areas where men do less is the care
of children, especially of young children (Rossi, 1987; Popenoe, 1996). Bianchi (2000) is optimistic about
this gap closing; she notes that from 1965 to 1998 fathers’ time spent in primary childcare went from 25 to
56 percent of mothers’ time. However, Robinson and Godbey (1997) still find women doing 80 percent of
childcare. Suitor (2001) finds that female faculty at one major university spend 113 percent more time than
male faculty in childcare.
Various approaches have been proposed to equalize male participation in household labor. Some
commentators look inward, arguing that male attitudes about gender roles must change. For instance,
Ross (1987: 816) holds that, “change in the division of labor at home is set in motion by women taking
jobs outside the home, but must be completed by a change in men’s values.”
Others think public policies granting post-birth leave from work to both fathers and mothers will bring
about substantial equality in childcare. Leave for mothers will give them time to recover and find
alternative care; leave for fathers will give them an opportunity to bond with their children and encourage
them to take a more active role in performing childcare duties, thus freeing up their wives to pursue career
goals. Some advocates who hope to increase the involvement of fathers in childrearing would make leave
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for fathers mandatory (Selmi, 2000; Bergmann, “Work Family Policies and Equality Between Women and
Men” in Blau & Ehrenberg, 1997).
The argument that changing gender role attitudes will eventually produce an equal division of
household labor and paid work among men and women has some support in the literature. Aldous,
Mulligan, and Bjarnason (1998) and Deutsch, Lussier and Servis (1993) both find a positive association
between the egalitarian attitudes of fathers and the participation of fathers in childcare. Ross (1987) finds
an association between less-traditional sex-role beliefs in husbands and a greater level of performance of
general household tasks among these husbands. As far as female gender role attitudes are concerned, Betz
and Fitgerald (1987) find a strong association between sex-role ideology and career orientation in women.
However, other studies find that changing attitudes does not help much. Thompson and Walker
(1989) find little relationship between gender role attitudes and the division of household work. Similarly,
Hakim (2000:77) cites numerous examples of weak association between social attitudes and behavior.
There has been little literature on the impact that parental leave can have on encouraging paternal
involvement in childcare and relieving work-family stresses for women. Existing studies have examined
leave policies mainly in Europe and have tended to focus on low male usage rates of existing leave policies
(Haas, 1992) or on the impact of the policies on the employment of women (Kammerman, 2000).
Little attention has been paid to what men actually do with their time when they take parental leave
and afterwards. Some evidence hints that even if men were to make extensive use of parental leave
policies, the result would still not be an equal or near equal division of childcare responsibilities between
husband and wife. Hakim (2000:97-8) cites a study by Huws, et al., (1996) of male and female freelance
translators. The nature of this work is such that the translators worked exclusively out of their homes,
submitting their work electronically. Among the men in the study, even though half had been working at
home for over five years, “there was almost no evidence of role segregation breaking down as a result.”
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Based on this and other evidence, Hakim concludes, “The argument that paternal leave schemes would
facilitate more equal parenting roles has little support in the research evidence on parenting roles among
young couples in the 1990s, at least as regards children up to the age of 11 years.” (148)
The current study examines the impact of the utilization of paid leave and of gender role attitudes on
the division of career and family responsibilities of 184 tenure track assistant professors at U.S. institutions.
All participants had at least one child under the age of two and were professors at institutions that offered a
paid parental leave policy.
There are reasons to believe that families where at least one parent is a professor are among the most
likely candidates to achieve equality in the sexual division of childcare. As mentioned above, egalitarian
(or non-traditional) gender role attitudes are associated with a more equal distribution of childcare in
families. And there are many reasons to believe that university professors have less traditional gender role
attitudes than most. First, professors were usually among the brightest students in their high schools. And
a number of studies find that intellectually gifted high school students, whether measured by IQ or
academic achievement, have less stereotypical personalities, interests and behaviors than others of their sex
(Lippa, 1998; Lubinski & Humphreys, 1990). Another study finds that younger age, advanced degrees and
mother’s labor force participation are all associated with egalitarian gender role attitudes (Harris &
Firestone, 1998). Hakim (2000:187) cites the research of Betz and Fitzgerald (1987 PAGE#), who find
that, “the expression of high intellectual ability is linked to the rejection of ‘traditional’ sex-role ideology”
(emphasis in original). Gender role attitudes aside, other studies find a direct association between
advanced degrees and professional status on the one hand and a more equal distribution of childcare and
domestic labor generally on the other (Berman & Pederson, 1987; Goldscheider & Waite, 1991).
Female professors would seem to have a particularly strong incentive to achieve an equal division of
childcare responsibilities in their households. If childcare gets in the way of research activities, these
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women may find themselves unable to achieve tenure. Zhang and Farley (1995: 197) state, “If [there is]
any occupational group in which the ideology of gender equality would be expected to develop sooner than
the general population, it would be female college faculty.” Still recognition of a problem does not mean it
will be solved: A 1996 study of female tenure-track professors found that over 82 percent of female
assistant professors with at least one child under the age of six believed that “time required by children”
posed a serious threat to achieving tenure (Finkel & Olswang, 1996: 131).
Most studies of the division of childcare among the sexes examine couples in a large variety of
occupations (Nock & Kingston, 1988). Different occupations have varying time and travel demands, and
this variety of demands necessarily impacts time spent in childcare. Our study has the advantage of
comparing men and women who have the same occupation, who are all at the most crucial stages of their
careers and who all have a child under two.
There are some other limitations of existing studies that we believe the current study avoids. The
literature has tended to examine the sex-based division of household labor generally without focusing on
childcare specifically (Zhang & Farley, 1995; Ross, 1987). Even those studies that do give special
attention to childcare tend to examine families with children of various ages (Suitor, 2001; Nock &
Kingston, 1988; Yogev, 1981), or if they do restrict attention to families with younger children, they look
at all families with pre-school aged children (Aldous, et al., 1998; Finkel & Olswang, 1996).
These studies may produce misleading conclusions about how men and women divide the childcare of
infants and toddlers. Studies have shown that the interest of fathers in their children is much greater when
the children are older (Rossi, 1987). However, most paid leaves in academia and in many other professions
are restricted to the period immediately after childbirth.
The granting of parental leave to fathers is unlikely to produce major changes in paternal participation
in childcare in the absence of egalitarian gender role attitudes. In addition to having the opportunity to
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participate in the care of their children, fathers need to believe that it is important for them to play a major
role in the care of their children. By restricting attention to university professors, we hope to have found a
group with the necessary gender role attitudes to test whether, under optimal contemporary conditions,
parental leave policies can be expected to produce equality or near equality in the sexual division of
A final drawback of virtually all studies on gender/childcare issues is that they have tended to focus on
gender role attitudes and situational constraints on behavior while ignoring preferences (Hakim, 2000).
We explore the idea that preferences, both of the child and of the parent, may play a role in explaining why
sex differences in the performance of childcare persist despite social forces and social policies that
encourage sexual equality. For instance, previous research has shown that infants and toddlers prefer to
play with their fathers but to be comforted by their mothers when upset (Lamb, 2002; Pruett, 2000).
Perhaps when parents make decisions about how to divide childcare duties they are at least partially
responding to cues from their children. If infants consistently convey a preference for mothers over
fathers, then the continuing dichotomy in the performance of infantcare could be viewed, at least in part, as
a response to the needs of infants.
The preferences of the parents may also play a role. While mothers and fathers may agree in the
abstract that an equal division of childcare labor is best for the family, if mothers derive more pleasure from
caring for children than fathers, it will be hard to bring fathers’ level of participation in childcare up to that
In sum, the goals of the current study are as follows. First, to determine the impact of gender role
attitudes and utilization of parental leave policies on the distribution of childcare in this sample of
university professors. In particular, we aim to see if belief in non-traditional gender role attitudes and
utilization of parental leave brings male performance of childcare close to the level of female performance.
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Second, to explore the idea that the preferences of mothers, fathers and infants may explain the continuing
gender gap in the performance of childcare.
The sample of university professors used in this study is drawn from a larger study on leave policies in
universities funded by the Alfred F. Sloan Foundation and the Bankard Fund at the University of Virginia.
This study was implemented using a multi-stage stratified sampling design. The sampling frame was
compiled from Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges, with Peterson’s categorization of the
competitiveness of the institution used to define the strata. Within strata, schools were selected with
probabilities proportionate to the size of each school’s full-time faculty. Thus, the resulting sample was
self-weighted at the level of the individual faculty members.
A sample of 168 schools was drawn from the sampling frame compiled from Peterson’s Guide. Initial
contact with the university was made through the human resources department. Often this contact was
sufficient to gather the necessary information about the existence and nature of a parental leave policy at
that university. In other instances contact with other departments in the university was necessary.
Since the nature of the leave policies varied greatly, the following criteria was used in order for a
school to be categorized as offering “paid leave”. Paid leave granting schools offered either (a) more than
six weeks of full relief of teaching duties with full pay; (b) half relief of teaching for one full semester or
quarter with full pay; or (c) full relief of teaching for a full semester with half pay. At the end of the
institutional phase of the survey 15 of the 168 schools did not respond to the survey (response rate= 91%).
Of the remaining 153 schools, 40 met our definition of paid leave. Of these forty schools, 28 offered a paid
leave benefit equally to new fathers and new mothers, whereas the remaining 12 schools had a benefit for
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The study then attempted to identify all tenure-track assistant professors at each of the 40 schools.
Initial contact with the professors in the survey was made via e-mail and so the sampling frame at the
university level was constructed from published university listings of e-mail addresses as well as by
searching university department websites when a listing of e-mail addresses for the whole university was
unavailable. This process resulted in a list of 6,534 assistant professors that were sent a web-based
qualifying survey that served to determine their eligibility for the study. In total, 3,029 responses were
received. While this gives a putative response rate of 46%, it is likely that a significant number of the non-
respondents screened themselves out of the survey because they were no longer assistant professors, or did
not have children. Of the 3,029 responses received, 311 were from tenure-track assistant professors with a
child under the age of two.
Phone contact information was able to be located for 289 of the 319 professors of interest in the
current paper. Since a disproportionate percentage of the 289 professors in the sample were males who
did not take a parental leave, our research team did not attempt to contact all professors in this category.
An attempt was made to contact all professors in all other categories. The analyses in this paper use
appropriate weights to compensate for this unequal probability of selection. Our research team
administered telephone surveys for 184 professors, for a response rate at this stage of the survey of 70%.
These 184 tenure-track assistant professors with children under two years old are the subject of the current
In our analysis sample, 56.3% of the respondents (unweighted n = 96) were males who had never
taken leave; 11.4% (unweighted n=23) were females who had never taken leave; 4.5% (unweighted n=9)
were males who had taken leave in the past two years; 19.9% (unweighted n=40) were females who had
taken leave in the past two years; 1.0% (unweighted n=2) were males on leave at the time interviewed and
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5.0% (unweighted n=10) were females on leave at the time interviewed. Two males and two females
received a leave that consisted of a reduction in teaching load of one course out of a total teaching load of
3 or more. These individuals were classified as intermediary between leave-takers and non-leave-takers
and were excluded from all analyses that involved a leave taking variable. Together this group comprised
2.0% of the weighted sample.
We note that 27 of the men who did not take leave were employed by schools that offered a paid leave
benefit to women but not to men. Thus, among professors eligible for paid leave, 12% of male professors
and 68% of female professors took advantage of this benefit.
Performance of childcare. Performance of childcare was measured with regard to the youngest child
in the respondent’s household, each of whom was less than 2 years old. Each participant was read a
sequence of 25 tasks related to the care of a young child and asked to state how often he or she performed
the task compared to how often his or her spouse performed the task. Amount of childcare performed was
measured in this comparative manner because self-estimates of absolute hours spent on childcare have been
found to be very inaccurate (Browne, 2002; Nock & Kingston, 1988). We attempted to ask questions
about every important infant/toddler care task. The tasks asked about encompassed items that assess the
division of parental responsibility for basic care (e.g., changing diapers, care when sick), logistics (e.g.,
taking the child to paid day care, buying food or toys), consulting and planning (e.g., seeking and
implementing advice about childcare, managing the division of labor for childcare), recreation (e.g., playing
with the child, taking child for walk in stroller), and emotional involvement (e.g., comforting the child
when upset). The categories mentioned above follow closely the categories used by Deutsch, Lozy and
Saxon (1993). Responses ranged from 1=spouse always performs task to 5=respondent always performs
task. To summarize the data on the performance of childcare the average of all 25 responses was