Research: Gender norms can change by showing families how much support communities have for working mothers

New research from the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne shows gender norms for roles in families can be changed simply by informing families how much support there is for working women in their communities.

The study, conducted by Professor Lisa Cameron and Dr Diana Contreras Suarez and their colleague at the University of Indonesia, Dr Diahhadi Setyonaluri, involved a survey of over 5000 people in Indonesia followed by a low-cost online information campaign based on the findings.

Professor Cameron said the study is important because globally gender norms in families hinder women’s opportunities, choices and achievements.

“Gender equality will not be achieved without changing gender norms for both men and women. Our research shows informing a community about how much their local population supports working women, and supports men taking on more child-minding duties, considerably increased the likelihood of families taking steps to find paid work for mothers,” said Professor Cameron.

The survey asked participants if they supported mothers taking on paid work and how much support they believed was in the community for working mothers. The results showed 76 per cent of women support married women with children working for pay outside the home, which was nine per cent higher than women’s perceptions, while men believed only 57 per cent of women supported working women.

A large discrepancy in estimates and reality was also found when asking about support for men taking on childcare duties.

Following the survey the researchers informed a select number of participants about how much support there is in reality and then offered all participants access to career advice for women.

“With both men and women underestimating how much support there is in society for women with children to have a job, they are less likely to take steps to find work. However, our intervention showed once they know the support is greater than they thought, they were 25 per cent more likely to seek advice and assistance to help a mother find work,” said Professor Cameron.

The intervention had a large impact on men’s attitudes, particularly for those who had wives who were not working.

Dr Contreras Suarez said one surprising finding is it’s not the older generations who are keeping mothers in the home.

“Mothers and mothers-in-law are very influential in the family and can be considered powerholders of gender norms in Indonesia and many Asian countries. People believe they are generally not supportive of working mothers. However, data shows that in Indonesia they are actually more supportive of working women than younger generations,” said Dr Contreras Suarez.

The researchers said the study shows gender norms can change if people are informed about the real support for change in their communities.

The full findings can be read in this Melbourne Institute Research Insight.

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Christopher Strong