FF 2016 Day 3: The division of labour in the home

The traditional arrangement
The second shift
Patterns that keep going
What do we do about it?

When we talk about the division of labour, we need to talk about both work in the home and in the labour market. The way labour is divided between men and women in the home reinforces and reproduces the divisions in the labour market (which we’ll look at in detail tomorrow) and vice versa.

A study of 25,000 graduates of Harvard Business School found that high-achieving women are falling behind their male peers in their career path, not because they’re opting out of work after having children, but because “they’re allowing their partners’ careers to take precedence over their own.” As we’ll look at in tomorrow’s post, marriage (even without children in the picture) tends to be bad for women’s careers, but good for men’s careers. This has a lot to do with assumptions about the gendered division of labour in the home, how these assumptions affect the labour market, and the reality of how labour is divided between men and women in the home.

‘Just how it goes’

The ‘traditional’ arrangement, stems from early industrial society- men took up regimented paid labour, while women were expected to look after children and do the unpaid domestic labour. (Ulrich Beck, Risk Society, p.104) Beck tells us that the problem is that, after WWII,  women could (and were increasingly expected to) join the labour market alongside men, without an equal and opposite reaction from men. Esping-Andersen makes the same point, calling it an “incomplete gender revolution”. Over the last century, women have joined men in the workplace, but while men are doing more in the home than they used to, women are still doing the majority of housework and childcare.

housewifeWomen living with male partners currently do nearly a month per year more housework and childcare than men. Sociologists Rosemary Crompton and Clare Lyonette point out that women’s continued responsibility for the majority of housework and childcare makes it very difficult for them to work according to the full-time adult worker model. Full-time hours are still stuck at the kind of hours you can work if someone else is at home cooking, cleaning and picking the kids up from school. A result of this is that a large proportion of women continue to take time out of the labour market or take part-time work.

The traditional arrangement, in which a husband’s career is seen as more important than their wife’s, is definitely not dead, however progressive we think we are as a society. The HBS study found that (while the vast majority of women across all groups anticipated that their careers would rank equally with their partners) only 48% of men of colour believed that their wives’ careers would be of equal importance, and only 39% of white men. The results of the study, showing that women fall behind because they allow their partner’s careers to take precedence, tell us that women’s original expectations tend to be disappointed.

It’s not about the money, money, money

Women still do more housework than their male partners even when they out-earn them. While women’s domestic labour hours tend to decrease among higher-earning women, research by sociologist Barbara Risman in 2011 found that “this does not mean that men are equally sharing household labour […]  what happens in practice is that women with higher incomes are more able to hire other women to do the ‘devalued feminized labour.'” Crompton and Lyonette found in 2014 that women “continue to assume the responsibility for organizing paid domestic help, even amongst the highest-earning couples.” They found that men’s contribution to domestic work was significantly greater in lower-earning households than for higher-earning professional or managerial couples.

Who does what?

Research by sociologist Scott Coltrane found that men are less likely than women to do the more mundane household tasks. Crompton and Lyonette found that “Even those men who do contribute tend to choose the more visible domestic tasks, such as shopping and cooking, creating a greater degree of gender segregation.”

“We sort of, I guess, share it fairly equally. I tend to do the cooking and the food shopping. My wife tends to do the cleaning and other bits and bobs like that, and so washing and ironing … yes, I’m much happier doing the cooking rather than the cleaning.” (male respondent to 2014 survey)


Crompton found that “the myth of male incompetence was occasionally used to excuse men from sharing housework, even though women still expressed a belief that their male partner should do more.” Another study of 2,000 people in 2014 found that nearly one-third of men “did a bad job of domestic duties on purpose so that their frustrated wives and girlfriends would do the jobs themselves next time.”

How much control men and women have over their domestic work routine differs a lot, too, as Professor Arlie Hochschild observes in The Second Shift:

“Even when couples share more equitably in the work at home, women do two-thirds of the daily jobs at home, like cooking and cleaning up- jobs that fix them into a rigid routine. Most women cook dinner and most men change the oil in the family car. But, as one mother pointed out, dinner needs to be prepared every evening around six o’clock, whereas the car oil needs to be changed every six months, any day around that time, any time that day. Women do more childcare than men, and men repair more household appliances. A child needs to be tended daily while the repair of household appliances can often wait ‘until I have time.’ Men thus have more control over when they make their contributions than women do.” (p.8)



The second shift

In the UK, and most of the USA, we have now moved on from the 1950s housewife image, but a new image has taken its place in the media we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Hochschild describes the pressure on modern women to take on both the domestic realm and the career, parcelled into the image of the “supermom” who “by some personal miracle… has managed to combine what 150 years of industrialization have split wide apart- child and job, frill and suit, female culture and male.” (The Second Shift) The supermom does everything- they take on paid employment, and then come home when they finish work and begin their second shift.hardees

Women’s responsibility for the majority of domestic work and childcare places a much greater time pressure on women in paid work, who have to deal with this double shift. This partially explains the much greater incidence of depression in employed women.

In a 2011 study of 1,259 women (68% working mothers, 32% stay-at-home mothers), 92% of working mothers said they are overwhelmed with workplace, home and parenting responsibilities. 63% of working mothers agreed with the statement, “Sometimes I feel like a married single mom.” One study of 2,000 mothers concluded that the average mother has only 17 minutes of “me time” per day. Labour economist Professor Rachel Connelly says that working mothers have next to no true leisure time, as being permanently “on-call” and multi-tasking (e.g. watching over children while trying to read a paper or talk to a friend) leaves leisure as what Connelly calls “contaminated time.”


How these patterns are reproduced

There are many different factors which contribute to reproducing this pattern, maintaining an unequal distribution of domestic labour, in turn reinforcing stereotypes about women which (a) increase discrimination against women in the labour market, and (b) continually reinforce pressure on women to conform with the traditional division of labour.


The weight of stereotypes and gender expectations: we are still living in a society where women are portrayed as more nurturing, as naturally more maternal and domestic, etc. A 2008 study of TV adverts found that only 18 (2.1%) out of the 853 adverts featuring men showed them performing domestic tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, or caring for children. Cleaning, childcare and cooking products continue to be marketed towards women, reinforcing the idea that these things are their responsibility, through adverts like this one:

The rise of neoliberalism and cuts to welfare programmes and childcare provision have privatised the problem of care, leaving couples and single parents to try and find a solution themselves; for many middle- and upper-class families this solution has been the hiring of nannies and cleaners from overseas, usually women and almost always low-paid.

The wage gap reinforces pressure on women to stay at home with children if she doesn’t make enough to pay for substitute care (if a couple cannot afford to pay for care it makes economic sense for the lower-earning partner, which is usually the woman due to the wage gap, to stay at home).

The UK allows individuals to opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive on grounds of individual freedom, without recognising that one person’s freedom to work longer hours (often under pressure from employers) curtails their partner’s freedom

Sociologist Susan Himmelweit points out that existing inequalities between men and women, when it comes to both employment and domestic work/childcare, will be exacerbated by policies that allow employees to determine their own working hours if these policies result in women, but not men, limiting their hours.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 11.08.35
The cost of childcare, together with women’s lower average wages, results in many women having little choice but to stay at home


How can we make this better?

One way: men with female partners, have a really good think about how much you’re doing compared to your wife or girlfriend. Even if you know you do a good chunk of the housework and/or childcare, what’s the real ratio?

A solution that’s more difficult for us to bring about as individuals is limiting working hours- that’s the kind of thing we need to do collectively, as a society. Full-time work is based on a model which doesn’t allow for a significant share of housework- it’s based on a model which assumes that someone else stayed at home. It follows that cohabiting men and women cannot both work full-time without external help. So, as a society, we either need to work on ensuring public provision of childcare for everyone, or we need to cut down our working hours collectively. It’s already being done in other countries– it’s clearly possible!

Want to read more?

Books (PDF links):



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