Parents adopt more sexist attitudes about who does what after a baby is born – except if they are Swedish

Photo: Blondinrikard Fröberg. Creative Commons.

This research supports the theory that gender beliefs about who does what are influenced by what parents can actually do.

Dr Janeen Baxter has reported on her Australian research here on Fatherhood.Global, showing that parents adopt more sexist attitudes when they have a baby. She argued that this happens because mothers and fathers hit real life after a baby is born, which pushes them in different directions. They change their beliefs to help make sense of it all.

But what happens if mothers and fathers are NOT pushed in different directions – if it is easy for mothers to continue to earn money and for fathers to look after children? That’s what it’s like in Sweden, where close to 90% of fathers take leave after a baby is born.

I looked at a sample of 1,800 Swedish people and observed how their attitudes towards gender equality changed between 2003 and 2009. We asked what they believed about equality in three areas – work, home and work leave for parents.

We measured changes in the following groups:

  • Those who were single in 2003 and were in a partnership in 2009.
  • Those who were in a partnership in 2003 but single in 2009.
  • Those who were in partnerships in both years, but different partnerships.
  • Those who had experienced multiple transitions in this period.
  • Those who had become parents between 2003 and 2009.

We found only a few small changes in gender attitudes.

Becoming a parent was associated with a drop in the average level of support for sharing parental leave equally, though couples who were parents in both 2003 and 2009 also showed a slight drop. And those who had moved from one relationship to another showed a slight increase in their level of support for job equality.

Women’s support for equal division of household labour and equal paid employment increased a bit more than men’s, and those whose parents shared housework more when they were children themselves were more likely to support household equality.

Overall, attitudes about work and family were quite stable in the face of changes in relationship and parenthood status. This research could support the theory that gender beliefs about who does what could well be influenced by how flexible it is possible for parents to be in sharing all the roles that are needed to raise children.