Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Taming of the True: A Qualitative Sampling of Gender, Marriage, and Career

Literature on the relationship between gender, marriage, and career trajectory typically focuses on the persistence of traditional gender roles within the home. Burns et al. (2000) find that though egalitarian notions of equality in the home may exist between couples in larger numbers than previously reported, the actual reality of power and work distribution in the home is far more traditional or conservative than these notions would imply. Similarly, recent features in the New York Times and the Atlantic have focused on the issues couples face when they attempt to fully share the burdens and work load a marriage or relationship necessitates. These problems affect both the ultra-wealthy and privileged as well as, quite obviously, the less-advantaged of our society (Slaughter 2012; Belkin 2008). With these difficulties in mind, I conducted a small-sample, qualitative survey of students at Brigham Young University to try and assess the relationship between career, gender, and marriage. The results, although not capable of indicating large-scale population trends for a number of significant reasons, are important to the discussion if only because they both confirm and challenge current research on these complicated relationships. Overwhelmingly respondents reported egalitarian attitudes as a prerequisite characteristic in a prospective spouse, as well as equal or greater interest, preparedness, and focus on career path in concordance or above familial responsibilities than the (few) male respondents, as well as the "conventional wisdom" on the subject. The primary portions of the survey I will focus on include career flexibility among currently married respondents, anticipated gender dynamics in a potential marriage, and the contrast in sentiments surrounding possible children.
Among the 12 respondents, four were married (not necessarily to one another, as well). Three were women and one was male. None had children, although all anticipated and were planning for future children. Out of the four, the male respondent and one female respondent reported their plans and career goals changing after marriage; the other two reported that their plans had not changed either due to prior commitment not to change career goals due to marital pressures. Of the four respondents, two (both women) reported that they were the primary supporters of their family and that this was the anticipated structure for the foreseeable future. In response to a question concerning whether or not the respondent felt their career goals were more than, less than, or equally flexible compared to their spouses, one woman responded equally flexible, one man responded more flexible, and the other two women reported that their career paths and goals were less flexible. Both women who responded that their career goals were less flexible were the same two who had reported that they were the primary supporter of the family. These findings were surprising as they reflected not only the fact that prior egalitarian notions didn't hold out (because, in that view, both spouses would have equally flexible career options), but that the female respondents were the ones who were locked into a career (either through pre-planned intent or consequence).

Of the eight single or engaged respondents, I asked a question which aimed at gauging anticipated gender role dynamics within a relationship. Of the eight respondents, anticipated or at least expected marriage in their foreseeable future. Seven women and one male comprise the respondent sample. The question asked who the respondent felt would feel the effects most of future changes within the household, either due to career changes or children. Two female respondents and our one male respondent reported that they anticipated equal share of potential burdens or necessary changes within the home. However, both female respondents reported in other sections of the survey conflicting views, with one responding:

"I’ll only work if my family absolutely needs the money. I feel like it is necessary for the family’s welfare for a parent to stay home with children and I hope that would be me. I might also drop out of college if it was what was needed for my family."

The other responded:

"I would expect whomever I marry to support my ambitions in both school and career... I think my marriage would be more or less contingent on finding someone who understood and supported my ambitions. I don’t think I would marry otherwise."
These two counterpoints are intriguing if only because they underlie the complexity of what consists of equal sharing of burdens within a household and marriage. To add to this complexity is the fact that the second sampled response was the only response which indicated that the respondent has planned for future equality in the home. All other female respondents reported that they were expecting to take time off of work or to completely drop a career in the workplace due to changes within the home, or that, at the very least, changes within the home were more likely to affect them than their spouses. These answers are striking in comparison to answers given in response to a battery of questions based on current academic goals, plans, and expectations about the near future. Almost all respondents were deeply committed to their academic major, could thoughtfully explain prior academic major switches, and valued intellectual and personal fulfillment as the main reasoning behind academic and career goals. Even respondents who explained their contentment with their academic major along economic terms indicated that this coincided with the ability to pursue alternate, more fulfilling career options in other fields. Thus the responses indicating greater anticipation of leaving the workforce or giving up academic prospects are not deeply tied to academic disaffection or lack of intellectual commitment, but perhaps cultural or experiential expectations. This all coincides with the most striking result from the small survey: children.

All of our respondents reported both wanting and anticipating children (although a few female respondents reported that they'd long been averse or ambivalent to the idea and were just warming up to the possibility). Though our representative population is far from equal, it is interesting to me that both male respondents, one married and one single, stated that their anticipation of having children was the single most important factor in their career and academic trajectories. One respondent indicated significant ambivalence and even dissatisfaction with their academic major, while the other indicated that although he was satisfied and even excited by his major, his decision to pursue his major was predicated on his future family. In contrast, six of the ten female respondents, married, single, or engaged, were explicit about current planning for children. One respondent candidly responded:

"Yes, I plan on having children. The kind of job I plan on doing is very affected by my desire to stay at home and raise them. It's hard to be in university and admittedly say that its very likely that I won't use my education for a while as my children are growing up but they will be worth any sacrifice."

This response is contrasted with the following:
"As of right now, children play very little part in my planning for the future. I don’t think children will be a big concern for a few more years."
"In all, children and having children don’t play a huge part in planning for my future. In fact, it’s a very small part of my plans."

"Well, if I had them, they’d be one of the biggest factors in many of my future choices… To a large degree, planning for my future would become planning for their future."

"They’ll be part of [planning for the future]."

These last two responses are significant in that they are specifically hypothetical; "if I had them",
"they’ll be", "would become" all indicating a disconnect from current academic plans for future children.
One other respondent, the same who indicated that she was currently planning for equality in the home, had this to say about how large a part children play in planning for the future:

"A big part – I think children could dictate future locations and careers, in terms of ensuring my children have access to good schools and accessibility to both of their parents. This is a very broad question, but what I can say now is that I expect both myself and my spouse to orient our jobs around raising children. That doesn’t mean one of us wouldn’t work at all, or even that we wouldn’t both work full time, but just that our trajectory could be jointly adapted and shaped to fit the development of our children. That said, I think this is far less difficult than it is made out to be and in fact allows for an incredibly broad range of careers for both sexes, contrary to popular belief."

This range of responses from the female population of the sample is significant in my mind as it shows not only a dichotomous relationship between those who choose to have children in lieu of careers or careers in lieu of children, but a variegated experience. The respondents who report the prospect of children having an insignificant impact on their current planning accede to the notion that in the future perhaps it will be a larger question. Likewise, those who plan now for future children acknowledge that they will pursue careers either during or following the raising of their children.

In short, though this qualitative sample has quite a number of drawbacks in terms of sample size, demographic representation, and adequate variables to account for lack of descriptive explanations, it shows an interesting cross-cut of a contemporary group of students at Brigham Young University. Again, the evidence is interesting in itself as it both challenges and reinscribes current research and commonly held-assumptions concerning marriage, gender, and careers, all of which lacks the nuance of actual experience and personal testimony.

Survey Sample characteristics:

Total Population: 12

Females: 10
Males: 2
Married: 4
Single: 6
Engaged: 2

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