Mother’s Instinct? Biological Essentialism and Parents’ Involvement in Work and Childcare

Ruth Gaunt, Francine M. Deutsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite wide public support for gender equality in work and caregiving, family responsibilities are still divided predominantly along traditional gender lines. This study examined the role of biological essentialism in the division of family roles using a nationally representative sample of British parents with young children (N = 5,605). Both mothers’ and fathers’ essentialist beliefs about men’s and women’s innate ability to care for children were associated with a more traditional division of childcare tasks, more hours of childcare provided by the mother, and fewer hours of childcare provided by the father. When gender role attitudes were considered together with biological essentialism, only essentialism was a significant predictor of involvement in childcare. Finally, the results supported our predictions that the effect of biological essentialism is mediated through parents’ work hours, and that essentialism affects mothers’ and fathers’ involvement in work and childcare in opposite directions. Taken together, the findings suggest that essentialist beliefs are a key hindrance to greater gender equality because they motivate parents to divide roles according to traditional gender norms. These findings may be of particular interest to practitioners and policy makers interested in increasing fathers’ involvement in childcare, mothers’ participation in the labor force, and overall gender equality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)267-279
Number of pages13
JournalSex Roles
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2024
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2024.


  • Caregiving
  • Childcare
  • Division of Labor
  • Essentialism
  • Fatherhood
  • Gender
  • Gender Equality
  • Motherhood
  • Parenting


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