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Evolving Gender Roles Explored at Anne Roe Lecture

Women have come a long way in the past 50 years. Today, women are getting married later and giving birth later in life; they make up 50 percent of the work force and also have tremendously shifted the roles in families. "There have been dramatic changes in how men and women look at their lives and what they are doing," said Rosalind Chait Barnett, director of the Community, Families & Work Program at Brandeis University, speaking at HGSE after receiving the 2008 Anne Roe Award on November 17.

Barnett's lecture, "Women's Journey toward Equality: Where We are and the Path Ahead," discussed how traditional gender roles have changed, subsequently freeing women to engage in life outside the home. During her presentation, Barnett provided much data on men's family and work roles, women's multiple roles, quality of marital relationships, and what the future holds for women's equality.

"Women's lives today are dramatically different [from] those of their mothers and grandmothers. Women are making choices that will prepare them for longer lives, significant labor force participation with marriage and children, knowing that they are contributing to their own economic well-being, getting more education, and proving themselves in well-paying employment," Barnett says.

On the same note, men's roles have also changed in the past 50 years, she said. Men have more responsibilities in the home and in caring for the children - and the majority of men now rank having free time with family as one of the most important factors in [choosing] their employment. "There are very dramatic changes for men and women in how they look at their lives in terms of what's important and what they do with it," she said. "The changes have been positive but we still have a long way to go."

Barnett noted that, although many of the traditional gender gaps between men and women are closing, there are still many struggles that lie ahead. In particular, Barnett highlighted that women's salaries have yet to catch up to those of men, with women earning about 65 to 80 percent of what men earn today. But, she also noted that many areas like science, education, and media coverage tend to hold on to old notions of gender roles and stereotypes. Barnett shared dozens of studies with the audience that debunk popular gender myths like women aren't biologically predisposed to do well in science, that husbands are resentful of wives who earn more, and that men are genetically incapable of being sufficient caretakers.

Barnett focused on the media's role and fixation on "retro" gender stereotypes by routinely publishing stories about women choosing to be stay-at-home mothers or overemphasizing the notion that working women climb the corporate ladder only to jump off it into motherhood. "Seventy eight percent of mothers with graduate or professional degrees are in the workforce and three times as likely to work full-time or part-time," she said, noting that over the past 15 years, the majority of women with college degrees have not been out of work more than six months -- even following childbirth. Barnett said the media's coverage contains "proliferations that women can't hack it" despite the wide publications of studies proving otherwise.

In closing, Barnett shared results from a Gender Gap Report where the United States ranked 27 out of 130 countries in economic, legal, and social aspects between men and women. The results further demonstrated a continued need for America to advance in this area. However, she also highlighted many bright spots in gender like women's recent active role in politics, a growth in scientific research that is sound and provides real data on gender differences, and the fact that the U.S. ranks first in women's educational attainment.

"We expect these trends to continue into the future because of increased knowledge being obtained about gender similarities and gender differences...however the path ahead, like the path behind, is not likely to be a smooth one," she said, noting that this requires biological determinism and the media's willingness to report new discovered gender similarities as it does differences. "A nation's competitiveness depends significantly on whether and how it educates its female talent to maximize its competitiveness and development potential, each country should strive for gender equality."


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