Young women prefer family men

Social media are buzzing with hashtags like #hotdaddy and blog posts ŕ la ’How to get your husband to help out around the house.’ The idea that women are attracted to men who are willing to set aside their career in favour of their family has now also been supported by research conducted by Dr Loes Meussen. She looked at the expectations about men within a relationship.

"Gender stereotypes normally change very slowly, but in the last decades we’ve seen that more women want to pursue a career", says Loes Meeussen (Social and Cultural Psychology). "We were wondering whether these developments have any consequences for men. If women have a hard time finding a balance between their professional and private life, are they then still looking for a man who’s all about work or do they prefer a man who helps out around the house?"

How did you investigate this?

Loes Meeussen : "In the first part of our research we divided 87 female psychology students into two groups. We presented each group with a different version of a story about a young new dad. In one version he took more paternity leave than the legal norm, in the other version he took less. We asked the students how attractive they would find the man in the story as a partner. The man who stayed home for longer resulted to be more attractive, a better father and a warmer-hearted person."

"In a second part of the research, we asked 224 students about how they picture their life in 15 years in terms of work-life balance and their ideal partner. Here, we discovered an interesting correlation: the more a woman wants to pursue a career herself, the more she prefers a family man. This is not necessarily a matter of cause and effect. The reverse is also possible. The fact that a woman is attracted to a family man may allow her to realise her own career goals."

What is the situation in countries where it’s more common for women to stay at home?

Meeussen: "The expectations for a partner are much more stereotypical in countries where women usually don’t want to pursue a career, or where the indicators show less gender equality than in Belgium. What you can see in this type of environments is that women are rather looking for career men, and men for family women. With this information in mind, we are working hard on making our research more international. Currently, about 60 countries are participating. It will be interesting to see how partner preferences are determined by gender equality and policy decisions on parental leave."

Do only young women have these expectations?

Meeussen"No, in our third study we asked 198 couples, all heterosexual and double-income couples between 22 and 59 years old, what they find important in their life. The answers revealed that women of all ages are happier if their partner has more time for his family. Women have had to find a balance between work and family for much longer and these two aspects often come into conflict in traditional relationships. Our research now shows that the more family-oriented a male partner is, the fewer work-family conflicts the woman has. Overtime and irregular working hours cause less stress for women if the man helps out around the house. This is interesting for relationship counsellors. It’s vital information if they want to help improve the relationship."

Does society as a whole follow this trend? Is it ready for the family man?

Meeussen: "No, some areas change more slowly than others and this makes it hard for men. At home, they have to be a warm-hearted family man, while this is still something they’re punished for at work. It’s a lot easier if the expectations are similar everywhere. For instance, it’s currently not always socially acceptable for men to take parental leave or work parttime. This also has to do with men’s underlying fear of losing their masculinity. Research has shown that men often feel that they have to prove their masculinity by being competitive and assertive."

Secretly, they all think that the ideal man can be warm-hearted, but at the same time, they believe other men have a very different view on this.

It’s clear what women want, but do men want this?

Meeussen: "That remains an open question. It’s not certain that men will adapt. Recently, we had a research project where we asked men how they see the ideal man and how they think other people see him. What did we find? Secretly, they all think that the ideal man can be warm-hearted, but at the same time, they believe other men have a very different view on this. If you start to confront them with this error in their mindset, they are more willing to open up and be more warm-hearted. For instance, they plan on no longer hiding care responsibilities from their environment."

"It’s clear that the government could also better support men. Now, they only get two weeks of paternal leave. As such, the government is sending the message that parenting is a woman’s task when, actually, men should also be shown that they have an important role as a father."

Women often complain that they have to juggle all responsibilities. Is it not dangerous to start expecting the same from men?

Meeussen: "Yes, that’s why we don’t necessarily have to create extra responsibilities for men. Maybe we should all start simplifying our responsibilities’ It’s not about taking on extra ones, but rather finding a good balance between partners, which can take on many forms. Many couples have divided the tasks at a certain point, but don’t discuss this anymore afterwards. It’s good for any couple to still explicitly talk about this at times. What do you really want? And don’t be guided by what society expects. There might be some relationships in which the woman is more interested in getting ahead, while it’s the man in other relationships. And then there are couples who divide the responsibilities equally."

Can the scale also tip? Do women find a stay-at-home dad as attractive as a man who combines work and family?

Meeussen: "We would need to further investigate this. I suspect that a man should have career goals to stay attractive, as work-oriented norms are still very strong for men at the moment."
What about you? Did you choose a family man? Meeussen: "My partner and myself both find our job and our family important. This also means that we both take one day of parental leave per week. It’s nice that we’re able to do this. I see a lot of young dads who show much more involvement than their own fathers used to do, but they’re still afraid of taking parental leave."

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