The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a shift toward more traditional beliefs about mother and father roles, study suggests

The coronavirus pandemic has forced families to adjust their dynamics in various ways. According to a study published in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, these changes may have led people to adopt more conventional gender role beliefs. Americans who were surveyed after the pandemic were more likely than those surveyed before to believe that fathers should go to work and that mothers should remain at home.

Sociologists have noted that traditional beliefs about gender roles are more or less on the way out, with Americans endorsing increasingly egalitarian gender attitudes — for example, showing increased support for working mothers. But evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic may have set this trend back a notch. School closures led to changes in the division of labor, bringing working mothers home to take care of children while fathers continued working.

“Attitudes around working parents have shifted dramatically over time. We were interested in what Americans think about how mothers and fathers should balance work and family — and especially how confronting the unprecedented work and school environment of the pandemic may have caused people to reassess these attitudes,” said study author Trenton D. Mize, an assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University.

“The larger scope of the project is about attitudes towards parental leave. We (of course) did not originally intend to study a COVID effect on attitudes — but we were struck at how consistently attitudes had shifted between our first study (just prior to COVID) and our second study (conducted in the middle of the pandemic).

Two identical surveys were administered among separate samples of American adults — one in March 2019 (pre-pandemic) and one in August 2020 (mid-pandemic). The surveys included 19 items related to gendered parenting attitudes, such as “A good father supports his family financially” and “Mothers are much happier if they stay home and take care of their children.” Respondents rated the extent that they agreed with each statement.

The researchers then measured the differences in parenting attitudes from the middle of the pandemic to before the pandemic, while controlling for any differences between the two samples that might be influencing attitudes. This left them with an average treatment effect.

Using this method, Mize and his colleagues uncovered an overall tendency toward more traditional gender attitudes following the pandemic. For example, Americans were more likely to feel that mothers are happier at home, should stay at home, and should not be working if they have young kids. They were also less likely to support the importance of fathers playing with children and the importance of fathers spending more time with kids and less time at work.

Notably, the biggest difference between the two samples was increased agreement that fathers should be the disciplinarians and mothers should be in charge of organizing children’s schedules.

“The pandemic appears to have shifted people’s attitudes about how mothers and fathers should balance work and family. The most consistent finding is a shift towards more traditional attitudes — with an emphasis on fathers being the breadwinner and mothers focusing on taking care of the children,” Mize told PsyPost.

Interestingly, Americans also showed more support for parents as financial providers and less support for parents as caregivers after the pandemic. Respondents agreed more with the idea of mothers as financial supporters and also agreed more with the idea of fathers as financial supporters. The study authors suggest that these changing attitudes may be a result of the economic hardship faced by many families during the pandemic, which may have led people to be more in favor of both parents bringing in money.

“There was an increased emphasis on both mothers and fathers needing to make money for the family — which seems practical given the coincident economic consequences of the pandemic — but somewhat in conflict with the increased desire for mothers to focus on taking care of the children,” Mize explained. “There was also an interesting decrease in viewing parents as integral to a child’s development, which we suspect is due to so many children taking classes from home and thus parents seeing firsthand the huge role in-person school plays for so many aspects of children’s lives and well-being.”

The researchers cite evidence that many mothers with young children left the workforce during the pandemic to take care of children at home, and that issues related to childcare have had more of an impact on mothers than fathers. This may explain why Americans seem to have adopted more conventional gender attitudes about parenting during this time. Overall, the study is evidence that large-scale events can shift people’s attitudes about gender roles.

But “it is too early to tell whether these shifts in attitudes are permanent,” Mize said. “It is possible — maybe even likely — that attitudes will revert back to their pre-pandemic levels once things are back to normal. Or, this might be a permanent shift — especially as flexible work arrangements may become a norm in some industries.”

“I see an interesting corollary between our findings and past sociological work on dual-career heterosexual couples,” he added. “For example, some work shows that when there is a family-wide need for more time spent focused on the family (e.g. because both parents work long hours), the typical pattern is a shift towards a more traditional family arrangement — with the woman quitting her job and focusing on family responsibilities and the man keeping his focus on work. That is, when things get tough — the man’s career tends to be prioritized which reinforces gender inequality.”

The study, “Visualizing Shifts in Gendered Parenting Attitudes during COVID-19”, was authored by Trenton D. Mize, Gayle Kaufman, and Richard J. Petts.