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Division of Labor

Contemporary Divisions Of Labor

Before the 1970s, most family researchers accepted the ideal of separate spheres and assumed that wives would do the housework and childcare, and that husbands would limit their family contributions to being a good provider. As more women entered the paid labor force, and as women's issues gained prominence, studies of household labor became more common. Researchers began asking questions about the relative performance of housework in families. Depending on the method and sample used, researchers arrived at different estimates of the amount of time men and women spent on various tasks. Interpreting the results from these studies can be difficult because of methodological limitations; nevertheless, these studies provide us with rough estimates of who does what in North American families.

The few household labor studies that included men before the 1970s found that wives did virtually all of the repetitive inside chores associated with cooking and cleaning whereas husbands spent most of their household work time doing repairs, paying bills, or performing outside chores like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. If U.S. men contributed to other forms of routine housework, it was usually in the area of meal preparation, where husbands averaged just over one hour each week compared to an average of over eight hours per week for wives (Robinson 1988). Even when cooking, however, husbands tended to limit their contributions to gender stereotyped tasks like barbecuing on the weekend, rather than contributing substantially to the preparation of daily meals. In the mid-1960s, husbands contributed less than a tenth of the time spent in cleaning up after meals or washing dishes in the average household, and only about a twentieth of the time spent doing housecleaning. Married men were extremely unlikely to do laundry or iron clothes, averaging about five hours per year in the 1960s, compared to over five hours per week for married women. Overall, husbands contributed only about two hours per week to the combined tasks of cooking, meal clean-up, housecleaning, and laundry, compared to an average of almost twenty-five hours per week for wives (Robinson 1988).

Later housework studies have found that women—especially employed women—are doing less housework than before and that men are Households and the activities that take place in homes re quire labor. Gender is often used to divide labor; however, there is no universal set of tasks defined as "women's" work or "men's" work. MICHAEL KELLER/CORBIS doing somewhat more. Nevertheless, the average married woman in the United States did about three times as much cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other routine housework in the 1990s as the average married man. Household work continues to be divided according to gender, with women performing the vast majority of the repetitive indoor housework tasks and men performing occasional outdoor tasks (Coltrane 2000).

Despite continuing gender segregation in household labor, norms and behaviors are being renegotiated. U.S. men are increasingly likely to report enjoying cooking and cleaning, and almost half of married women say they want their husbands to do more housework (Robinson and Godbey 1997). This attitude shift reflects women's frustrations with being overburdened by housework, especially when they work outside the home (Hochschild 1989).

Psychological distress is greatest among wives whose husbands do little to assist with household chores. Not only do women spend many more hours on household labor than men, but they also tend to do the least pleasant tasks, most of which are relentless, obligatory, and performed in isolation. The lonely and never-ending aspects of women's housework contribute to increased depression for U.S. housewives. Men's household chores, in contrast, have tended to be infrequent or optional, and they concentrate their efforts on relatively fun activities like playing with the children or cooking (Coltrane 2000; Thompson and Walker 1989).

Studies have also consistently found that mothers spend more time than fathers in feeding, supervising, and caring for children, although men have increased their time with children, especially in conventional gender-typed activities like physical play (Parke 1996). However, effective parenting also includes providing encouragement, meeting emotional needs, anticipating problems, facilitating social and intellectual learning, and enforcing discipline, activities for which mothers are primarily responsible. Even if couples share housework before they have children, they often shift to a more conventional gender-based allocation of chores when they become parents (Cowan and Cowan 2000).

Getting married increases women's domestic labor, whereas it decreases men's. Still, most wives consider their divisions of household labor to be fair. According to surveys conducted through the 1990s, most wives expected only moderate amounts of help with housework. Women rarely seek or receive help with behind-the-scenes family work, such as overseeing childcare, managing emotions and tension, sustaining conversations, or maintaining contact with kin. Many women (and some men) derive considerable satisfaction and self-worth from caring for loved ones and enjoy autonomy in these activities. Women feel less entitled to domestic services than do most men, and view husbands' help as a gift that requires appreciation. Some women who demand equal sharing of domestic tasks find that it threatens the harmony of the family relationships they work so hard to foster (DeVault 1991; Hochschild 1989).

Although men are putting in more hours on housework tasks, responsibility for noticing when tasks should be performed or setting standards for their performance are still most often assumed by wives. Women in the 1990s tended to carry the burden of managing the household as well as putting in more hours and performing the most unpleasant tasks. In line with this division of responsibility for management of household affairs, most couples continue to characterize husbands' contributions to housework or childcare as "helping" their wives (Coltrane 1996).

Children and other family members also perform various household tasks. In some households, their domestic contributions are sorely needed; they are required to participate for practical and financial reasons. In other households, children are expected to assume responsibility for household chores as part of their training and socialization, or because it expresses a commitment to the family. For children, as for adults, household tasks are divided by gender, with girls putting in more hours and performing more of the cooking and cleaning. Children's housework is typically conceived of as helping the mother, and young people's contributions tend to substitute for the father's (Goodnow 1988).

Caring for elder relatives has also become pertinent globally as whole populations age due to increased longevity and reduced fertility rates. Because women tend to live longer than men, they predominate as beneficiaries of care. Women also tend to be the providers of elder care, particularly if the beneficiary is a parent. A majority of these women caregivers are employed or want to re-enter the labor force. Elder care can have both positive and negative effects on the psychological and social stress of caregivers. While employer elder care programs can moderate some stress, only about one-quarter of major corporations offer such programs in the United States (Spitze and Loscocco 1999). In some northern European countries, the state takes on much of the responsibility for elder care, as it does for childcare, but in many other countries families are assumed to be solely responsible (Phillips 1998).

The unbalanced division of household labor continues to be reflected in the dynamics of paid labor. In the global workforce, occupations remain segregated by gender, and women are still paid much less than men doing the same or similar jobs. Although many countries have incorporated the principle of equal pay for equal work into their labor legislation, and gender differences in pay vary between countries and occupations, in no country do women earn as much as men (United Nations 2000).

Not only are women discouraged from entering predominantly male occupations, but when they do, they tend to get the least desirable jobs. Moreover, studies in the United States have found that segregation at the job level may actually exceed that at the occupational level (Bielby and Baron 1986). Research in different countries reflects similar occupational segregation, which is unrelated to women's participation in the labor force or to the level of economic development. Moreover, to the extent that occupational segregation is decreasing, it reflects men's movement into predominantly female occupations rather than the other way around. A glass ceiling still tends to limit women's rise to top administrative and managerial positions in all regions of the world (United Nations 2000).

Theoretical Explanations

Various theories have been advanced to explain why men monopolize higher paid positions and why women perform most unpaid household labor. Such theories also predict the conditions under which divisions of labor might change. The theories can be grouped into four general categories according to the primary causal processes thought to govern the sexual division of labor: nature, culture, economy, and gender inequality.

Nature. Biological and religious arguments suggest that women are physically or spiritually predisposed to take care of children and husbands; housework is assumed to follow naturally from the nurturance of family members. Similarly, functionalist theories suggest that the larger society needs women to perform expressive roles in the family while men perform instrumental roles connecting the family to outside institutions. However, feminist critiques claim that these theories have flawed logic and methods, and cite historical and cross-cultural variation to show that divisions of labor are socially constructed (Thorne and Yalom 1992); only women can bear and nurse children, but the gender of the people who cook or clean is neither fixed nor preordained.

Culture. Theories that consider the division of labor to be culturally fashioned tend to emphasize the importance of socialization and ideology. Historical analyses of the ideal of separate spheres fall into this category, as do cultural explanations that rely on rituals, customs, myths, and language to explain divisions of labor. Socialization theories suggest that children and adults acquire beliefs about appropriate roles for men and women, and that they fashion their own family behaviors according to these gender scripts (Bem 1993). Some sociocultural and psychological theories suggest that exclusive mothering encourages girls to develop personalities dependent on emotional connection, which, in turn, propels women into domestic roles. Boys also grow up in the care of mothers, but in order to establish a masculine identity, they reject things feminine, including nurturance and domestic work (Chodorow 1978).

The basic idea in most cultural theories is that values and ideals shape people's motivations and cause them to perform gender-typed activities. Empirical tests of hypotheses derived from these theories yield mixed results. Some researchers conclude that abstract beliefs about what men and women "ought" to do are relatively inconsequential for actual behavior, whereas others conclude that there is a consistent, though sometimes small, increase in sharing when men and women believe that housework or childcare should be shared (Coltrane 2000).

Economy. Theories that consider the division of labor by gender to be a practical response to economic conditions are diverse and plentiful. New home economics theories suggest that women do the housework and men monopolize paid work because labor specialization maximizes the efficiency of the entire family unit. Women are assumed to have "tastes" for doing housework, and their commitments to childbearing and child rearing are seen as limiting their movement into the marketplace (Becker 1981). Resource theories similarly assume that spouses make cost-benefit calculations about housework and paid work using external indicators such as education and income. Family work is treated as something to be avoided, and women end up doing more of it because their time is worth less on the economic market and because they have less marital power due to lower earnings and education.

Educational differences between spouses are rarely associated with divisions of labor, and men with more education often report doing more housework, rather than less, as resource theories predict. Similarly, total family earnings have little effect on how much housework men do, though middle-class men talk more about the importance of sharing than working-class men. Some studies show that spouses with more equal incomes— usually in the working class—share more household labor, but women still do more than men when they have similar jobs. Thus, relative earning power is important, but there is no simple trade-off of wage work for housework (Gerson 1993; Thompson and Walker 1989). Most studies find that the number of hours spouses are employed is more important to the division of household labor than simple earnings. Time demands and time availability—labeled by researchers as practical considerations, demand-response capability, or situational constraints—undergird most peoples' decisions about allocating housework and childcare.

Gender inequality. The final set of theories also focuses on economic power, but more emphasis is placed on conflict and gender inequality. Women are compelled to perform household labor because economic market inequities keep women's wages below those of men, effectively forcing women to be men's domestic servants. Unlike the new home economics, these theories do not assume a unity of husband's and wife's interests, and unlike many resource theories, they do not posit all individuals as utility maximizers with equal chances in a hypothetical free market. Other versions of theories in this tradition suggest that social institutions like marriage, the legal system, the media, and the educational system also help to perpetuate an unequal division of labor in which women are forced to perform a "second shift" of domestic labor when they hold paying jobs (Chafetz 1990; Hochschild 1989). Some versions draw on the same insights, but focus on the ways that the performance of housework serves to demarcate men from women, keep women dependent on men, and construct the meaning of gender in everyday interaction (Berk 1985; Coltrane 1996).

Household labor theories are often complementary or overlapping. The theories in the last three categories suggest that a more equal division of household labor could exist if more women move into the paid labor market; if men's and women's educations, incomes, and work schedules converge; if cultural images portray parenting as a shared endeavor; if governments and businesses promote sharing through programs and policies; and if more children are exposed to egalitarian practices and ideals. Related trends (e.g., continued high levels of cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, along with postponement of marriage and parenthood) also imply that more sharing of household labor is probable in the future (Coltrane and Collins 2001). Changes are likely to be modest, however, as many of the conditions that brought about the unequal division of labor still exist. As long as men monopolize the best jobs, get paid more, and receive more promotions than women, they are unlikely to assume more responsibility for housework. Even if women gain more economic power, until cultural and economic forces promote more gender equality, changes in the division of labor will be small.


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Coltrane, S., and Collins, R. (2001). Sociology of Marriage and the Family: Gender, Love, and Property. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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Robinson, J. (1988). "Who's Doing the Housework?" American Demographics 10:24–28, 63.

Robinson, J., and Godbey, G. (1997). Time for Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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Thorne, B., with Yalom, M. (1992). Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions. New York: Longman.

United Nations. (2000). The World's Women 2000: Trends and Statistics. New York: United Nations.

Other Resource

United States Department of Labor Women's Bureau. (1999). "Earnings Differences Between Women and Men." Available from http://www.dol.gov/dol/wb/public/wb_pubs/wagegap2000.htm.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsDivision of Labor - Historical Trends, Contemporary Divisions Of Labor