Double standards: a cross-European study on differences in norms against nonmarital cohabitation and divorce for men and women

Arieke J. Rijken, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI)
Aart C. Liefbroer, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI)

We examine double standards regarding divorce involving young children, non-marital cohabitation, and having children in cohabitational union. A double standard implies that men and women are evaluated differently when displaying the same behavior. Whether men or women are more disapproved of when engaging in these modern demographic behaviors, is not a priori clear. We formulate arguments in both directions: women who do not choose for the security of marriage may be regarded unwise as they are often financially dependent; men who do not commit to traditional family roles may be seen as refraining from their responsibilities. We expect that double standards vary cross-nationally by the level of gender equality (in terms of educational attainment and economic participation)and also explore whether men or women hold the same double standards or not. To test our hypotheses we conduct multilevel analyses including individual and societal-level variables. Our sample consists of 44,000 individuals nested in 25 countries, obtained from Wave 3 of the European Social Survey (2006). Subjective norms towards divorce and (having a child in) non-marital cohabitation were measured with a split ballot design; half of the respondents was randomly assigned items regarding women displaying these behaviors, the other half was assigned items regarding men. Findings indicate that men are more disapproved of than women when displaying such non-traditional family behaviors. This double standard is strongest for divorce involving young children. Women endorse all three double standards, whereas men only endorse the double standards regarding divorce (though not as strongly as women do). Clear cross-national differences in the double standard exist, which are partly explained by the level of gender equality. Surprisingly, the higher the level of gender equality, the stronger the double standards. Hence, especially in gender equal countries people are more tolerant towards women displaying non-traditional family behavior than towards men.

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Presented in Session 91: Multilevel perspectives on his and her life course in Europe