Gender division of labour in the home – the column

Well Troppodillians, subject to the usual caveats – I take all responsibility for errors of fact, judgement, taste and ideology, I still thank you all for helping me out on this column which has now been published.

Whether you think it’s any good or not, this was the most successful exercise in ‘open-sourcing’ a column I’ve had. It began with some musings a week or so ago cross posted to LP.

Reactions helped me sort out my ideas. I was struck by the strong (and reductionist) dichotomy between nature and nurture. Often this was invoked by feminists for the purposes of sending it up. “Don’t tell me women are genetically programmed for housework”. I agree that that’s a long bow to draw. Still, I’d used the word ‘temperament’ in the previous post.

The ground is so contested and adversarial that it’s easy to be misunderstood in fact it’s almost impossible not to be misunderstood.

You’ll notice that in the piece though I mention neuro-psychology which suggests that boys and girls’ cognitive development are quite different, I don’t really go into the content of it. I tried that and then thought I was getting trapped into ‘Women are more nurturing’ kind of statements. I am pretty suspicious of that kind of stuff, though I expect that’s the kind of thing many will think I’m arguing.

So if you have a look at what I’ve said there are several things I’ve tried to do.

1. Not specify the differences between the sexes specifically except to say that women often choose some things willingly as do men.
2. Say that, given that there are strong differences it isn’t surprising that complementary roles emerge (though we shouldn’t get too sure that they’re all that perfectly complementary), and, though it’s not stated in the column, they might change from time to time and even reverse.
3. Specify my three stages approach differentiation which is

a) Biological makeup influencing orientations
b) Personal developmental choices doing a lot of the solidifying, amplifying and interpreting of how those orientations will develop
c) All this taking place in a cultural context.

The word ‘model’ is quite misleading here with all it’s mechanistic and deterministic implications. The word ‘discourses’ is a tad fashionable for me, but it’s probably the best word I can think of off the top of my head. The three things (discourses a, b, c) outlined above are powerfully interacting influences. That means that I don’t really think that women are more suited to do the housework biologically, or that under different cultural circumstances it mightn’t be entirely OK for it to be ‘men’s work’.

When I try to think about it in the way I’ve set out (and written up less definitively in the column) the important question to me is “Given the bilogico-personal-cultural histories of the players, to what extent are the gender roles oppressive (which is bad) and to what extent are they good because they deepen life experiences of value.

The idea that women can raise children and that doing this is valued in their culture can be oppressive, but for many it deepens their experience of something that (I feel) is a valuable thing as we can ever do (what could be more important than raising children?). Given this view I also want men to be involved, and accordingly for their role to be reinforced in the culture.

But I have no hangups whatever about there being ‘equality’ in gender roles. Though equality of workload is a practical and political matter between the couple (which is both understandable and not a bad thing) that seems to me to be something between the couple. Gender roles should certainly be flexible (unoppressive) enough not to be a major obstacle to equality of effort if that’s what someone wants to negotiate in a couple.

So while gender roles should not impose inequality where that is felt as an oppression, I don’t think gender roles should be principally about equality. They should be about the things that men and women do they should help them do them and value and deepen (and in so doing assist) their achievements.

I guess I reckon gender roles are like clothes. They’re supposed to permit differentiation which enriches us without commanding it or preventing those couples who wish to dress in Mao suits (figuratively or literally) from doing so. But of course that’s a tall order and there are necessary tradeoffs in this fallen world of ours.

Anyway, the column’s below the fold.

The lion’s share of work around the house

I wonder who cooked and washed up your Christmas dinner? Chances are it was women. Scores of studies reveal women are still doing the lioness’s share of the work at home. (Lions never did do much work.)

Today, though they begin sentences with “I’m no feminist but . . . “, women jealously guard what gender equality they have won (and hang on to an advantage or two).

Confident that gender roles were ‘social constructs’, many expected a revolution in the household division of labour as women poured into the paid workforce. But as one disappointed feminist put it, we’ve got a ‘stalled revolution’ on our hands.

Here’s a snapshot. In the mid-1990s, women in Australian couples spent nearly twelve hours a week preparing food their men just three. They spent fourteen hours washing clothes and cleaning the house to their men’s two and a half. Childcare involved a similar division of labour.

There are two mitigating factors. First, blokes do more of the ‘traditional’ men’s tasks. They spend slightly more time on family finances and putting out the garbage (though neither takes long!). They garden and mow. And do three of the four hours per week spent on improving the house (or resisting its fall into ruin).

Second, as women take on more paid work they do cut back a little around the house. Even so, women still do lots more housework and childcare.

Recently women have scaled back on meal preparation by outsourcing it to the market. Home-delivered pizza or Chinese anyone? Pasta sauce or chilled soup from the supermarket? In case you’re wondering, after outsourcing the cooking, couples are outsourcing Dad’s gardening more than Mum’s house cleaning.

Why is there such a disparity? And does it matter?

One view is that it’s all a purely economic transaction. With men earning at higher rates the ‘opportunity cost’ of their time is higher. And specialisation in the division of labour usually improves efficiency.

You’ll be unsurprised to hear that feminists see things differently. They see stereotyped gender roles which have come under vigorous challenge in public life still thriving in the privacy of our homes.

They argue that women’s disproportionate household contribution arises from a power imbalance in favour of men. With women receiving lower pay and couples still paying more attention to the man’s career trajectory, the patriarchy gets its gender expectations met and perpetuates its dominance.

The fact that women’s share of household labour does fall as their relative earnings in the household rises, supports both explanations. But the effect is quite small. Women with the same hours and earnings as their men still do most housework. These patterns are similar in all rich Western countries.

New research suggests that men’s contribution rises most if both partners work part-time. But once women’s share of earnings rises above their men’s, men seem to ‘strike’ to defend their (threatened?) masculinity. They actually withdraw from housework.

Even if the couple shares a feminist ‘gender ideology’ of equal housework guess what? Even that narrows the gender housework gap very little.

What’s going on?

Oddly existing research virtually ignores emerging neuro-psychological research that’s showing just how much differing gender behaviour might reflect different cognitive and neurological development between the sexes.

Boys and girls start with hard-wired cognitive biases. Habits then form from repeated individual choices. And no-one would deny that those choices themselves occur within a culture which thinks differently about men and women.

Given that, it’s not so surprising that the sexes often have strong (somewhat) complementary preferences. On becoming parents most women are willing primary providers of primary care and milk. That gives them enduring skill advantages. So too men often become the handymen without complaint.

There’s usually housework that neither partner fancies. Often men can ‘hold out’ longer while that question of who’ll tidy the lounge just hangs in the air! But though most prefer tidiness, caring relatively less about untidiness is a preference too.

Of course, those preferences reflect (amongst other things) social expectations. But the important question is how well gender roles suit men and women whether they’re experienced as oppressive or as something which enhances and deepens valuable, lived experience.

And it doesn’t seem that women experience the gender housework gap as oppressively imposed by outside expectations. When asked, only one in seven Australian women say they’re unsatisfied. A paltry three percent are very unsatisfied, though nearly a third think their men could do more.

Meanwhile back in the academy, feminists speak of women’s relative satisfaction in the same way that Marxists used to bemoan the ‘false consciousness’ of proletarians who weren’t revolutionaries.

No doubt there are horror stories amongst the unsatisfied women. And some of us men should probably do more at home. But it doesn’t look like a huge problem.

But I would say that wouldn’t I?

Anyway I’ve got to go. Dinner’s ready.

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18 years ago

“Scores of studies reveal women are still doing the lioness’s share of the work at home. (Lions never did do much work.)”

Good one! The lion’s share of work is something of a misnomer. The female lions in the pride do all the smart lead-up work in hunting as well, the lion just turns up for the end game and the tucker.

18 years ago

Thanks Nicholas good piece. It is a dilemma that’s not set to change much or quickly. Society is still strongly partriachal and its easy as a female to be cynical because of this overt imbalance. Men like yourself sometimes question the status quo and wonder why, but with female complicty and confusion about feminist ideals and a backlash against it which is enforcing gender roles, its going to be long slow haul to recognise that a woman with a predisposition to germ eradication is actually helping to preserve life and ideally should be valued in this effort and given a helping hand without being abused for seeking some support.

18 years ago

Well written and well thought out Nicholas. In the article you draw out and expand on the complexities that actually reflect reality.

One thing I noticed by its absence is the idea that women do more housework because the negative ramifications for them if they don’t do at least 50% but typically *over* 50% of the housework. As a woman, I see and hear evidence all around me that female slobs are thought of with much more disdain than male slobs. I’m pretty convinced that this is what would be the difference between my own “decision” to do a certain amount of domestic chores and the “decision” of my male counterparts to do less.

Mark Bahnisch
18 years ago

On lisa’s point, we could imagine a Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. It would be much different to Queer Eye for a Straight Guy. Some of those guys who get makeovers for their flats/houses live in appalling squalor (often in prime Manhattan apartments) but get treated like “just boys”. If there were a tv show that showed middle class 20 something women living in filthy apartments with decaying food on the floor, the moral tone would be condemnation and shock rather than indulgence, I’m sure.

18 years ago

Thanks for the illustration in point, Mark.

But to be fair on Nicholas, after he said “Boys and girls start with hard-wired cognitive biases. Habits then form from repeated individual choices.” he did say “And no-one would deny that those choices themselves occur within a culture which thinks differently about men and women.”

What we are talking about here is the “culture which thinks differently about men and women”. And I think what I tried to say was I’d put a lot more emphasis on this culture than the “hard-wired congnitive biases”.

Mark Bahnisch
18 years ago

Oh, I wasn’t having a go, lisa.

There’s more discussion of the hard-wired stuff on the parallel thread over at LP.

Rachel Thomson
Rachel Thomson
18 years ago

Another interesting point on this is that women are highly concentrated into a number of occupations. Many studies draw the conclusion that this is because women gravitate towards occupations which have static skill sets so that they can take time off to bear children – this explains the low number of women in professions like IT, where the job is constantly changing. These occupations tend to be low paying … and so the opportunity cost for women of engaging in unpaid work in the home is less than for their (on average) higher paid partner. The answer, then, is maternity leave and a greater focus on keeping women engaged with the workforce while they are bearing children – doing this would make it unneccesary for women (like me) to choose static, low paying professions.

Mark Bahnisch
18 years ago

Technically, Rachel, female dominated occupations are defined (by the ABS if I recall correctly) as those which have more than 60% of women. In practice, the % is usually larger. It’s known as horizontal gender segregation of the labour market. (As opposed to vertical gender segregation where women are concentrated in lower paid work across the labour market generally). Another take on it is the creation of expectations in childhood and at school as to what women are “suited for” in the workplace – most of these occupations – teaching, nursing, customer service, child care, hospitality – are ones that place a premium on emotional labour. Interestingly, there’s also the phenomenon of the “glass elevator” where the few men often rise to the top – ie male primary school principals and male senior librarians.


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10 years ago

Yes, but which way is the causation? Does coordinating on housework produce a happy marriage, or does a happy marriage facilitate the coordination of housework?