Who has a greater impact on their children's support for patriarchal gender norms and attitudes, mothers or fathers?
Both mothers and fathers may maintain patriarchy through their parenting: raising their children in gender-stereotypical ways, enforcing patriarchal gender roles among sons and daughters, and modelling and encouraging patriarchal identities and relations through their own role-modelling of these in their interactions with their partners, divisions of labour, and so on. (See here for references on mothers and mothering, including mothers’ parenting of sons, here for references on fathering, and here for accessible pieces on raising gender-equitable sons.)
At the same time, there is evidence that the enforcing and policing of traditional gender norms and roles is done more by fathers than mothers.
Men in general are more supportive of traditional gender norms and roles than women (Flood, 2018, p. 48). There is a gender gap in attitudes, with mothers typically having more progressive attitudes than fathers.
Women are more aware than men of the constraints of gender stereotypes, including their limiting effects on men and boys. For example, a US survey of 15-24 year-olds found women were more likely than men to see young men as under intense pressure to conform to traditional masculinity. They had greater recognition than men of masculinity’s negative outcomes on emotions, friendships, and violence (Jones, Cox, Fisch-Friedman, & Vandermaas-Peeler, 2018).
Fathers do more than mothers to enforce gender stereotypes and gender boundaries among their sons, as studies among US parents find (Kane, 2006, p. 161). Research finds that fathers engage in more differential gender treatment and enforcement of gender boundaries among children than do mothers (Kane, 2006, p. 151). Similarly, an Australian survey among parents finds that mothers are more comfortable than fathers with their children not conforming to gender stereotypes (Our Watch, 2018, p. 4). A US study among sexual minority adolescents (ages 15-19 years) found that few mothers, but even fewer fathers, reacted positively to their children’s gender non-conforming behavior (D’Augelli, Grossman, & Starks, 2008).
More widely, the policing of masculinity is done more by men than women. For example, a recent study among US young men aged 11-24 found that it was men more than women who relayed the message “Man up” or “Be a man” to young men. Many of these young men saw it as acceptable to mirror their fathers’ and male relatives’ treatment of women (Joyful Heart Foundation, 2018).
In addition, men’s endorsement of masculine norms is influenced far more by their perceptions of other men’s beliefs than of women’s beliefs, as studies among male university students find (Berkowitz, 2011).
One source of children’s gender attitudes is intergenerational transmission, the influence of their parents’ attitudes. Little is known about the relative influence of mothers’ and fathers’ attitudes. There are some reasons to think that mothers’ influence may be greater than fathers’ influence: mothers typically do far more parenting and spend far more time with children than fathers, children thus have greater exposure to mothers, and children may develop greater attachment to mothers.
On the other hand, “fathers are more dominant, authoritarian and rigid in their interactions with children, and more likely to sanction children’s deviations from the behaviours that they deem appropriate”, so children may be more pressured into conforming to their fathers’ than their mothers’ orientations (Perales, Hoffmann, King, Vidal, & Baxter, 2021, p. 3). Also, in the context of wider patriarchal inequalities, men tend to receive higher status than women across social settings. Children thus may perceive their fathers as being more competent than their mothers, and give more credibility to their fathers’ than their mothers’ teachings, including about gender (Perales et al., 2021, p. 3).
Studies have found mixed evidence regarding the relative influence of mothers’ and fathers’ gender attitudes on their children’s attitudes (Perales et al., 2021, p. 3). For example;
- An Australian study found that paternal and maternal attitudes exert a similar degree of influence on their children’s attitudes, and have complementary rather than cumulative effects. In a study of Australian 14 and 15-year-old adolescents, fathers’ attitudes influenced sons’ and daughters’ attitudes equally, while mothers’ attitudes influence daughters’ attitudes more than sons’ (Perales et al., 2021).
- In a Spanish study of adolescents, there were positive associations between mothers’ sexist attitudes and the sexist attitudes of their sons and daughters, and between fathers’ sexist attitudes and the sexist attitudes of their sons but not their daughters (Garaigordobil & Aliri, 2011).
Berkowitz, A. D. (2011). Using how college men feel about being men and “doing the right thing” to promote men’s development. In J. A. Laker & T. L. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp. 161-176). New York & London: Routledge.
D’Augelli, A. R., Grossman, A. H., & Starks, M. T. (2008). Gender atypicality and sexual orientation development among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth: Prevalence, sex differences, and parental responses. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 12(1-2), 121-143.
Flood, M. (2018). Men and the Man Box – A commentary. In The Men’s Project & M. Flood (Eds.), The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in Australia (pp. 46-53). Melbourne: Jesuit Social Services.
Garaigordobil, M., & Aliri, J. (2011). Conexión intergeneracional del sexismo: influencia de variables familiares. Psicothema, 23(3), 382-387.
Jones, R. P., Cox, D., Fisch-Friedman, M., & Vandermaas-Peeler, A. (2018). Diversity, Division, Discrimination: The State of Young America. Retrieved from Washington, DC:
Joyful Heart Foundation. (2018). Defining Manhood for the Next Generation: Exploring Young Men’s Perceptions of Gender Roles and Violence. Retrieved from New York:
Kane, E. W. (2006). "No Way My Boys Are Going to Be Like That!": Parents' Responses to Children's Gender Nonconformity. Gender & Society, 20(2), 149-176. doi:10.1177/0891243205284276
Our Watch. (2018). Challenging gender stereotypes in the early years: The power of parents. Retrieved from Melbourne:
Perales, F., Hoffmann, H., King, T., Vidal, S., & Baxter, J. (2021). Mothers, fathers and the intergenerational transmission of gender ideology. Social science research, 99, 102597. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2021.102597