Changing Sex Roles: Its Impact Upon Family Decision Making

William J. Qualls, The University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - Major shifts in the lifestyles and role structure of the family have prompted researchers to reexamine decision-making practices of the household. This paper reports findings on the effects of family members' sex-role orientation on influence patterns for several household decisions. The comparison of sex role modern and sex role traditional family members reveals differences in perception of family decision influence.
[ to cite ]:
William J. Qualls (1982) ,"Changing Sex Roles: Its Impact Upon Family Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 267-270.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 267-270


William J. Qualls, The University of Michigan


Major shifts in the lifestyles and role structure of the family have prompted researchers to reexamine decision-making practices of the household. This paper reports findings on the effects of family members' sex-role orientation on influence patterns for several household decisions. The comparison of sex role modern and sex role traditional family members reveals differences in perception of family decision influence.


The nature of familiar decision-making has been characterized in terms of distinct role perceptions, role definitions, and role performances by family embers. Each family decision is analyzed with respect to a set of family role norms and task assignment responsibilities. During the seventies, significant changes occurred in the role perceptions and role structure of the family. These changes, which have been attributed to various social and economic phenomena, have caused researchers to reconceptualize family roles in terms of sexual orientations. The long-term significance of sex roles is not totally clear, having surfaced only recently because of the increased visibility of women outside the home. It is the contention of this paper that the concept of sex role is central to the process of modeling family decision-making.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss two related topics: (1) the role of an individual's sex-role orientation in the family decision making process, and (2) the measurement of sex-role orientation and its impact upon family decision making processes. The discussion of the second topic will include a brief presentation of some empirical evidence which lends support to the relevance of sex-role orientation (SRO) in a family decision-making (FDM) context.

Empirical findings reported during the last ten years have suggested a gradual shift in men's and women's perceptions of the appropriate distribution of labor within the household and the appropriate place for women in this society. These changes entail a new pattern of reported shared roles and joint decision-making (Baas 1980). The literature suggests that men are becoming increasingly involved in household activities, while women are increasing their participation in the labor force (Haas 1980). The breadwinner/provider role, traditionally the domain of the male, and the housekeeper role, traditionally occupied by females, are no longer separate and distinct roles within the family.

Scanzoni (1975) suggests that changing sex roles and how they are perceived by family members has a tremendous impact upon family decision-making processes. The precise nature of these shifts in role perceptions and role behavior and the extent of their effect on FDM processes remains unclear. Green and Cunningham (1975) found that differences In contemporary and traditional female role perceptions had an effect upon family decision-making patterns. Alternatively, Roberts and Wortzel (1979) found that the general role orientation of the wife toward the household task, foot shopping behavior, is not as effective a predictor variable as the specific attitude toward that household task. Today, the general belief among family researchers is that sex-role orientation has an impact upon the family decision-making process and not upon specific family tasks. Although the controversy continues and the jury remains out on the usefulness of sex-role orientation as a predictor or explanatory variable of family decision waking practices, the present study differs from previous research in one important aspect. The role perceptions of both the husband and wife are collected and its impact upon family decision-making is explored.

The discussion to follow centers on one variable, sex-role orientation, as part of a set of variables that can be used to e plain family decision-making. Empirical evidence in then presented as to how this variable affects the family decision-making process. Finally, managerial implications derived from the study's findings are used as the basis for suggesting future research issues.


It is proposed in this paper that a family member's sex-role orientation constitutes only one of many variables that can be used to characterize the environment of family decision asking. Major shifts in family members' sex-role orientations are of particular interest to family researchers and consumer marketers because of the contention that the family is the most relevant unit for conducting consumer research and understanding buyer behavior.

She precise meaning of the term sex-role is often left undefined, but generally it is based on one of three commonly employed interpretations. The first of these and the most widely known is based on sexual gender. This approach holds that men, because of their physical stature and their status position in society, hold a dominant position, while females hold a subordinate position. This approach is similar to the sociological concepts known as "sex stratification" (Nielsen 1978) and "gender differentiation" (Holter 1970). Major changes in family member perceptions have caused a shift in the reliance on sexual gender as the basis for dividing household labor and decision-making responsibility.

Alternatively, division of labor has been utilized as a basis for defining a person's sex role. From this perspective, the female role is perceived to fall somewhere on an equality-inequality continuum (Meier 1972). Sex-role equality occurs when females are accepted in the labor force outside the home. Conversely, the belief that women's place is within the hoe is generally reflected in behaviors that are associated with the inequality end of the continuum. Studies utilizing this framework provide guidelines from which to develop methods for analyzing the impact of increasing numbers of women in the work force and the emergence of the working housewife.

The third approach, closer to the conceptualization of this study, entails a construct in which sex role is defined as a person's sex-role orientation. Other researchers have referred to this construct as sex- role preferences (Scanzoni 1970), gender norms (Holter 1970), and sex-role attitudes (Araji 1977). Sex-role orientation is defined as a person's evaluation of and behavior with respect to values, opinions. cultural beliefs, and behavioral standards which are based on sexual gender and division of labor practices. It is the practice of a person's sex-role orientation which provides the dynamic underlying pattern of family decision-making processes.

Regardless of which of the three approaches has been utilized to define the sex-role construct, the result has been a sex-role typology conceptualized as a continuum, the extreme ends of which are sex-role traditionals (SRT) and sex-role moderns (SRM) (Tomeh 1978). Sex-role traditionalists exhibit attitudes and behaviors consistent with past conceptions of the male-provider and female-housekeeper roles. Decision-making within such a family is dominated by the husband, while the wife takes a more subservient role in the FDM process. Alternatively, SRM (nontraditional) family members are identified by their more equalitarian role perceptions and behavior. Spouses in this group tend to share decision responsibility and task performance on a more equalitarian basis.


A total of 117 households were selected for participation in the study from a small midwestern university city. Couples for the study were solicited by direct mail leaflets and an advertisement in the local student newspaper. Only married couples were allowed to participate in the study. Of this group of 117 households, 102 completed usable questionnaires. Primarily a convenience sample, the selected study group closely paralleled the demographic makeup of a university town.

The study was conducted by way of in-home personal interviews including both paper and pencil tests and tape recorded observations regarding the hypothetical family purchase decisions for six product categories. me survey instruments contained measures of sex-role orientation, perceived influence, and socio-economic status. Sex-role orientation was measured by the Osmond-Martin Sex-Role Attitude Scale (Osmond and Martin 1975). On the basis of their sex-role orientation scores, husbands and wives were classified as sex role traditional or sex role modern. Measures of family member influence was used to label product decisions; husband dominated, wife dominated, or jointly determined .

Sis product decisions were selected on the basis of their potential for being decisions jointly determined by husbands and wives. She sis products included (1) family vacations, (2) family automobile, (3) children's education, (4) family housing, (5) family insurance, and (6) family savings. Specifically, the decisions to be determined included (1) where the family should go on their vacation, (2) what type of second automobile the family should purchases (3) whether the children should attend public school or private school, (4) whether the family should live in a house or an apartment, (5) how much insurance the family should carry, and (6) how much money should be allocated to savings each pay period. These six product decisions are very similar to those employed in earlier studies (Blood and Wolfe 1960, Green and Cunningham 1975).

Sex-Role Orientation Measures

The sex-role measurement employed in this study is the Osmond-Martin (1975) 32-item sex-role attitude scale. The Osmond-Martin Sex-Role Attitude Scale has proven to be reliable in past studies, reporting a Cronbach coefficient alpha of .88, well above the recommended level of .60. Although the coefficient in the present study is not as high, the reliability of the instrument is confirmed by a reported Cronbach alpha of .67.

The scale is composed of four general components which are used to explore different types of perceived role attitudes and behaviors of the husband and wife. The scale is a Likert-type scale with five response categories (strongly agree to strongly disagree). The 32 scale items fall under one of four attitude-behavior descriptions: (1) familial roles, (2) extrafamilial roles, (3) stereotypical male-female roles, and (4) social change as related to sex roles. On the basis of spousal responses to the sex-role orientation questionnaire, an average response to the 32-item scale was obtained.

Perception of Influence

The most widely used and commonly accepted measure of the outcome of family decision-making processes is the level of husband and wife influence (Davis 1976). In this study the level of spousal influence for a given decision task is used as the dependent variable to determine the impact of spouse's sex-role orientation.

Examination of past research in the area of family member influence reveals several problems in the measurement techniques employed. Specifically, past studies have failed to be sensitive to small but significant changes in a family's influence structure. In this study influence is measured on a 100-point constant sum scale ranging from total influence (dominance) by the husband to total influence (dominance) by the wife. The midpoint on the continuum represents jointly determined decisions or equal influence by both spouses. The influence scale employed permits a spouse to indicate his or her own level of influence for specific decisions as well as his or her spouse's level of influence for the same decision. For each product decision, the question was asked of both husband and wife: "In my family, the fair proportion of husband influence/wife influence should be _____" (Burns 1973).


The following analysis and discussion were conducted in light of two previous studies on family role structure its effect upon family decision-making (Davis and Rigaux 1974, Bonfield 1978). The Bonfield study in particular investigates the question of whether marital roles and husband/ d fe perception of influence differ between traditional households and the more general population. Similarly, the question which guided the present analysis vas: to what extent do husbands and wives who differ in their sex-role orientations differ in their perceptions of spousal influence?

Table 1 illustrates the mean ratings of perceived influence by both spouses. A comparison of husbands' and wives' influence ratings indicates that the patterns are similar and in the same general direction. It may be interesting to note that husbands' ratios of their perceived influence are consistently higher than the wives' reported perceptions. In a finding similar to those of Davis and Rigaux (1974) and Bonfield (1978), husbands perceived the insurance, savings, and automobile decisions to be their area of influence control, and decisions regarding vacations, children's education, and housing to be more jointly determined. By contrast, wives perceived only the automobile and insurance decisions to be dominated by husbands, and the remaining four decisions to consist of relatively equal influence, and thus to be jointly determined.

The evidence of these findings is presented in Table 2, which indicates the percentage distribution of influence across each point decision. The level of agreement was relatively high across all six decisions: 74%, 75%, 84%, 80%, 58%, and 68% respectively. In general, previous findings about role specialization across these six products were supported.

Investigation of the research question of whether differences in sex-role orientations account for differences in family role perceptions began with a comparison of mean influence assessments according to spousal sex-role orientation. Table 3 reveals that the pattern of perceived influence is somewhat different for husbands and wives when they are compared on the basis of their sex-role orientation. Husbands who are sex-role traditionalists consistently perceive their levels of influence to be higher than do their dues, sex-role modern husbands, and the more general set of all husbands. Specifically, sex-role traditional husbands (HSRT) perceive themselves as dominating decisions regarding vacations, automobiles, housing, insurance, and savings. Only the decision regarding children's education was perceived by HSRT as more jointly determined. The pattern of influence exhibited by husbands who are sex-role modern (HSRM) reflects that of the more general case of all husbands. As in the general case, the automobile, insurance, and savings decision were perceived by HSRM as their domain of greater influence.





In contrast, wives in both groups-sex-role traditionalists (WSRT) and sex-role modern (WSRM) exhibited patterns of influence perceptions which were similar to each other as well as to those of the general category of all wives.

The patterns identified above are illustrated by the percentage distribution of influence across each product decision according to the spouse's sex-role orientation. Table 4 presents results which indicate differences in family role structure according to a spouse's sex-role orientation. One noticeable pattern is that the level of joint influence perceived by spouses who are sex-role modern is higher than that perceived by spouses who are sex-role traditional. These results are reflective of the trend towards egalitarianism discussed by Haas (1980). Among SRM husbands and wives. only the insurance decision is perceived as being relatively more influenced by one spouse-the husband; but even with the insurance decision, joint influence is the dominant pattern between spouses. Thus the general move toward joint decision-making is supported in this study.






Overwhelmingly, the majority of consumer research has focused upon the individual as the relevant unit of analysis, where in many cases the family may be the most appropriate unit of research specifically, in cases or decisions involving intrafamily influence or pint consumption by family members. The findings presented in this paper are one step in addressing this neglected area.

The comparison of sex-role modern and sex-role traditional suggests that a family member's sex-role orientation affects the degree to which families interact and the perceived pattern of influence for various family decisions. The tendency is for sex-role modern family members to perceive a more egalitarian distribution of family decision influence and thus increased interaction between family members. Alternatively, sex-role traditional oriented family members perceive influence for the same decisions similar to past role classifications and role norms of the family. These changes in sex-role orientation would suggest the need to add this variable to models of family decision-making. The extent to which husband and wife sex-role orientation affects marital role structure in family decisions should be of interest to both consumer researchers and marketing practitioners.

The movement by husband and wives toward more joint decision-making may indicate an answer to the old question of which member of the family should be interviewed in conducting family level research. The patterns revealed in this paper would suggest that both spouses should be interviewed. Although role specialization within the household does exist, the results strongly support the need to question all relevant family members for a given decision task.

Differences in role patterns between sex-role traditional spouses and sex-role modern spouses were apparent. Thus, it appears that future research involving family decision-making should incorporate a family member's sex-role orientation as a variable in the decision environment that affects family decision-making processes. Although the results reported here indicate some significant differences in role specialization patterns according to sex-role orientation, additional research should be performed to confirm this relationship.

Frequently, the roles played by husband and wives in family decisions are used as a basis for determining marketing segments, promotional messages, product development, pricing strategies, and distributional strategies. If the pattern in family decision-making revealed in this study is held to be valid and a shift is occurring in role specialization and role enactment, adjustments in marketing strategies must take place. The impact of changing sex roles upon family decision asking appears to warrant further investigation.


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