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New study: Changing roles benefit men and women

October 8, 2001

Contrary to longstanding theories of gender and psychology, women and men can benefit by taking on more than one traditional social role, such as worker or parent, report two researchers in the October issue of American Psychologist.

In the last 30 years, more women have joined the work force and more men have taken on household tasks. Commonly accepted gender theories suggest that juggling these work and family roles has introduced distress in families, but Janet Hyde, a UW–Madison psychology professor who co-authored the paper, says she’s found quite the opposite.

“We used to think that multiple roles and their balancing caused people stress,” Hyde explains. “However, the research shows that multiple roles are beneficial, thereby overturning the classical theories.”

Hyde, along with psychologist Rosalind Barnett from Brandeis University, examined more than two decades of empirical data. Overall, the researchers found that employment was associated with improved health for both single and married women, regardless of their parental status, who had positive attitudes toward their jobs.

Men who held multiple roles also had better health. Some data suggest that men’s family roles may be more critical to their psychological well-being than their wage-earning ones. Furthermore, Hyde and Barnett found that multiple roles do not strain relationships: In one study, marital dissolution was highest when the wife had no income.

“That multiple roles improve the physical and psychological health of both men and women is a distinct departure from the old formulations,” Hyde says.

Hyde and Barnett go beyond those studies to propose a number of factors that explain the relationship between multiple roles and beneficial outcomes. Among them are added income, social support, opportunities to experience success, perspective and buffering. This last factor, which is an interaction between two roles, enables the successes in one role to offset the failures in another. As Hyde explained, “We all have bad things happen to us in one role, but if we’re doing well and are successful in another role, we’ll feel better because we’re buffered.” Men’s positive experiences in their family roles, for instance, can counter distress in their wage-earning ones.

The authors note, however, several qualifications. “There are upper limits to the benefits. Sometimes, too much is too much,” says Hyde. “If the number of roles becomes too great or when the demands of one are excessive, overload and distress might occur.”

As this point suggests, role quality is more important than the number of roles or time spent in a role. “High levels of role satisfaction were associated with low levels of depression and anxiety,” the authors wrote.

“We’re proposing a new view of how women and men balance work and family,” Hyde says. “We’re presenting a new way of looking at things that’s better matched with today’s realities.”

As the authors mention in the paper, their theory is neither timeless nor culturally universal. Rather it “reflects the current situation of women and men in their work and family roles and … will be far more useful than the predecessor theories in guiding future research and clinical practice.”

Tags: research