This article is part of the Forum Network series on New Societal Contract
The United States is in the midst of re-examining the role gender plays in its culture. Recent revelations about powerful men harassing and assaulting women in the workplace have highlighted the challenges and inequities women face. Findings from a major study on gender by the Pew Research Center show that, while Americans see gender equality as a laudable goal, most say there are fundamental differences between men and women in their traits and characteristics and in the pressures they face.
Americans see gender differences, but are split on whether they are based on biology or societal expectations
While majorities of Americans say there are differences between men and women in the way they express their feelings, their physical abilities, their hobbies and personal interests, and their approach to parenting, there is no consensus over whether these differences are rooted in nature or nurture. Men tend to attribute them to biology, while women point to societal expectations.
The one area where most Americans do not see major differences between men and women is in the things they excel at in the workplace – 63% say men and women are basically similar in this realm. This is notable because the primary venue where women experience gender discrimination is in the workplace.
Americans see different pressure points for men and women
Aside from the traits and characteristics that separate them, the public sees vastly different pressure points for men and women as they navigate their roles in society. Large majorities say women feel a lot of pressure to be physically attractive (71%) and to be involved parents (79%). Far fewer say men feel pressured in these ways. When it comes to men, majorities say they feel a lot of pressure to support their family financially (76%) or to be successful in their job or career (68%). Only about four-in-ten say women feel pressured in these areas.
When asked in an open-ended question what traits society values most in men and women, the differences were also striking. The top responses about women related to physical attractiveness (35%) or nurturing and empathy (30%). For men, one-third pointed to honesty and morality, while about one-in-five mentioned professional or financial success (23%), ambition or leadership (19%), strength or toughness (19%) and a good work ethic (18%). Far fewer cite these as examples of what society values most in women.
These findings come in spite of the fact that women now make up roughly half of the workforce, and a growing share are the sole or primary breadwinner in their household. Meanwhile, men have taken on greater responsibility in terms of housework and childcare, and this is especially true of married men in households where both spouses work full time.
In spite of the fact that most Americans see differences between men and women, many also say that gender roles should be less rigid. About half of all adults say society should be more accepting of men and women who take on nontraditional gender roles, and majorities say parents of young girls and boys should encourage them to play with toys and engage in activities that are typically associated with the opposite gender.
Clearly the public’s views about gender equality and gender roles are complex, and attitudes differ significantly along key demographic and political fault lines. Men and women have different perspectives on many of these issues, as do Democrats and Republicans. This means that as the country continues to debate gender issues, Americans are not all starting at the same place. To see how your own views compare with those of the U.S. public take our quiz.