father 1950s 2050

In the future, parents will be more similar than today and still maintain distinct, gender-typical attributes finds researcher Sarah Banchefsky.


What does it mean to “be a man”? For the past century, women have increasingly tackled jobs and roles once exclusive to men. Men, on the other hand, have been much slower to take on traditionally feminine jobs and roles, such as early childhood education or housework. This gender gap in entry into nontraditional roles has consequences—stereotypes about men have remained largely the same over the course of a century. In one study, people reported that men in 1950 and 2050 would be doing the same sorts of jobs, and possess the same masculine traits and lack of feminine traits. In contrast, women were viewed as becoming increasingly nontraditional, taking on masculine careers and characteristics while diminishing in feminine careers and characteristics. This stubborn stereotype of men fits with research showing that “manhood” and “masculinity” are strictly defined; whereas womanhood is viewed as a natural and effortless part of being a woman, regardless of her actions, manhood depends on a man’s actions—it must be continuously earned and defended through public acts of strength, valor, and aggression. Perhaps most critically, manhood requires that all things feminine be avoided. Abiding by these unspoken rules can harm men’s health, damage their relationships, and ultimately impede gender equality and endanger society.

Men have an opportunity to express a different side of themselves in fatherhood. In the home, the media, and the workplace, the responsibilities, functions, and meaning of fatherhood in the United States are changing. There is much discussion of the “new father”, likely motivated by real change in the behaviors of fathers. In households with two parents, dads now spend more time with their children than at any time for which there are comparable data. Between 1965 and 2003, they have doubled the time invested in housework and childcare, and the number of stay-at-home-fathers has increased almost every decade since the U.S. Census started counting them. Alongside these behavioral changes, dads are expressing greater interest in taking an active and involved role in childcare. A vast majority desire and more are requesting paid paternity leave, and a record number consider being stay-at-home-dads.

Motivated to examine whether people really believed in this idea of the “new father”, we studied whether stereotypes about dads and moms were changing over time. We had 425 undergraduates envision moms or dads either in the past (1950), present (2009) or future (2050). First, they first simply wrote their impressions about what this person’s life might be like—for example, what they do on a daily basis and what their personality is like. They then rated how frequently a mom or dad would perform specific parental responsibilities (from never to always), as well as the likelihood that the person would possess various personality traits (from very unlikely to very likely). Half of these parental responsibilities and traits were traditional of mothers (for example, preparing meals for the family, arranging for a babysitter, comforting a child when s/he is upset; being intuitive, being expressive) and half were traditional of fathers (for example, paying the monthly bills, providing household income, fixing things around the house; being ambitious, being assertive).

In line with the idea of a “new father”, we found that moms and dads were viewed as becoming more similar to each other from the past to the present and into the future. Specifically, fathers were viewed as less often doing things such as paying the monthly bills, disciplining the children, and worrying about the financial well-being of the family—traditionally paternal roles—and more often doing things such as preparing meals for the family, doing the laundry, and scheduling doctor and dentist appointments for children—traditionally maternal roles. Mothers showed the opposite pattern, but despite their perceived diminished engagement with traditionally maternal roles, they were actually viewed as retaining the same level of maternal traits over time.

Notably, even in the year 2050, people did not envision moms and dads as being the same. Although they were seen as more similar to one another than in the past, both were still expected to stick to their traditional parent roles and have the characteristics that coincide with these roles. Nevertheless, people viewed parents as becoming more alike over time, and this was especially due to changes in perceptions of dads. That dads were viewed as changing even more than moms is striking given previous research showing that men, but not women, are seen as remaining the same over the course of 100 years. This shifting understanding of fatherhood may empower men to express a softer side, potentially redefining what it means to “be a man”. Research shows that the characteristics most valued in a social group are those that facilitate success in the group’s social role. As the social role of fathers changes to embody more nurturing and caretaking behaviors, the characteristics people most value in fathers will broaden to encompass “nurturing”, “sensitive”, and “caring.” Whether a father quits a job to stay at home with his kids, leaves work early to pick up a sick child, or packs his child’s lunch, these behaviors alter people’s beliefs and expectation about fathers and what they are capable of, ultimately changing the definition of what it means to be a father, and perhaps, a man.

Read the complete study here.


sarah blanchefsky 2016Sarah Banchefsky, PhD, is a research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder, working with Dr. Tiffany Ito. Her research broadly focuses on gender stereotypes and ideologies that impede women and men’s entry into nontraditional roles. 

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