Parenthood is often thought of as an essential component to a meaningful life and is normalized in most cultures. However, studies have shown this norm is highly gendered in that there are higher expectations for women to become parents compared to men. New research published in Sex Roles, however, found that the order in which questions are asked to participants influences how they endorse gendered parenthood norms.
“For women, motherhood has been socially constructed as a ‘biological instinct’ and a social imperative for women in order to have a complete life,” wrote study researchers Elise de La Rochebrochard and Virginie Rozée. “As fatherhood is not perceived as a basic biological instinct, childless men are not exposed to the same social stigmatization as childless women.”
In contrast with the large body of research demonstrating these gendered expectations, one study found the opposite where childless men were rated more negatively than childless women in nations with high gender equality (e.g., France, U.K., Germany, Sweden, and Spain). Researchers were interested in how the response context of this study could have influenced these results. Notably, this study compared responses from two independent groups of participants that either only evaluated the parental norm for women or the norm for men.
These authors suggest having all participants evaluate norms for both women and men is the key to observing whether there are double standards in gendered expectations of parental norms. This is because participants can then evaluate their expectations for one gender in relation to their expectations of the other gender.
“In line with the methodological framework on double standards, we assumed that the gendered parenthood norm would emerge only when conditions of activation of a double standard are met,” hypothesized the researchers. “For quantitative surveys, these conditions of activation have been described as the question-order effect, whereby the response to the first question affects the response to the second question.”
The response context of the first question is shaped by personal history and values (“personal background context”) and the second is shaped by the social relational comparison with their first response (“social relational context”).
In the current study, the researchers were interested in exploring these gender double standards for parenting in a sample of 4,067 French participants aged 15 to 49. They recruited participants via random digit phone dialing to achieve a nationally representative sample. Participants gave several relevant demographics (including gender on a binary scale).
They were measured for parenthood norms using the following question: “In your opinion can a [woman/man] have a fulfilled life without having children?” Participants could give three possible answers: “Yes, easily,” “With difficulty,” or “No.” Endorsement of the norm was classified as responding with either of the latter two options. Importantly, half of the participants answered the question about women first followed by the question about men and the other half answered the question about men first.
Results indicate that responses indeed varied significantly by response context. “The variation in responses revealed that the endorsement of the parenthood norm for women was higher in the social relational context than in the personal background context among female and male participants, whereas endorsement of the parenthood norm for men was lower in the social relational context than in the personal background context among female and male participants.”
Further analysis showed stronger endorsement of the parenthood norm for women than men by both male and female participants in the social relational context. However, in the personal background context, the parenthood norm for men was endorsed more strongly by male participants than the parenthood norm for women. Similarly, female participants endorsed the parenthood norm more strongly for women than for men.
“These patterns indicate that female and male participants shared the same social context in which parenthood is a gendered social construction. In the personal background context, we did not observe a gender double standard, illustrating the importance of conditions for the activation of double standards. It clearly demonstrates how the same question in quantitative surveys can be answered differently depending on the context in which individuals are responding.”
The researchers cite some limitations to this work including the reliance on a single question to assess endorsement of parenthood norms and using only a French sample. Future research could expand to other societies to increase the generalizability of these findings.
The study, “Revealing Gender Double Standards in the Parenthood Norm Depends on Question Order“, was published April 13, 2022.