• Created by: rdowd40
  • Created on: 27-05-19 14:53

The domestic division of labour


Parsons identifies two conjugal (marital) roles: the instrumental role of the male breadwinner and the expressive role of the female nurturer/ carer. 

Parsons argues that this gender division of labour among couples is functionall for the family, its members and wider society. He sees this division as biologically based - women are naturally suited to nurturing, men to providing - so everyone benefits from this specialisation.

The New Right agree with Parsons that this biologically based gender division of labour is the best way of organising family life. 

Feminists reject the functionalist view - the division of labour is not 'natural' (e.g. it is not found in all societies) and it only benefits men.

1 of 16

The domestic division of labour

The 'march or progress' view:

This view sees conjugal roles becoming more equal in modern society. Bott identifies two types:

  • Segregated conjugal roles are separate. There is a sharp division of labour between male breadwinner and female homemaker (like Parsons' instrumental and expressive roles). Husband and wife spend their leisure time separately. Young and Willmott found segregated conjugal roles in working-class extended families in Bethnal Green in the 1950s.
  • Joint conjugal roles involve couples sharing domestic tasks and leisure.
2 of 16

The domestic division of labour

('March of progress view continued...)

The symmetrical family Young and Willmott see a long-term trend towards joint conjugal roles and the symmetrical family, where roles are more similar and equal:

  • Most women now go out to work
  • Men help with housework and childcare (the 'new man')
  • Couples spend their leisure time together. Men have become more home-centred and the family more privatised.  

Reasons The rise of the symmetrical family is due to major social changes during the 20th century, e.g. higher living standards, labour-saving devices, better housing, women working, smaller families.

3 of 16

The domestic division of labour


Feminists reject the march of progress view. They see the family as patriarchal, not symmetrical or equal. Women still do most of the housework and childcare.

Oakley found no evidence of symmetry in domestic labour. She argues that Young and Willmott exaggerate men's role: although husbands 'helped', this could include just ironing their own shirt once a week. 

Boulton argues that we need to look at who is responsible for tasks, not just who performs them. The wife is seen as responsible for children's welfare, even when men 'help'. Less than 1 in 5 husbands took a major part in childcare.

4 of 16

Are couples becoming more equal?

The march of progress view:

Most women today are in paid work. The march of progress view argues that this is leading to a more equal division of labour.

Sullivan found that women now do less domestic work, men do more traditional 'women's' tasks, and more couples have an equal division of labour.

5 of 16

Are couples becoming more equal?

The feminist view:

Feminists do not believe women working has led to greater equality. Women now carry a dual burden of paid work and domestic work. British social attitudes survey shows women do twice as much and couples still divide household tasks along traditional gender lines. There has been little change since the 1990s.

Responsibility for children - Although fathers help with specific tasks, usually mothers take responsibility for children's well-being.

  • Dex and Ward found that only 1% of fathers took the main responsibility for caring for a sick child
  • Braun et al found most fathers were 'background fathers'. They held a 'provider ideology': their role was breadwinner, not primary carer.
6 of 16

Are couples becoming more equal?

(The feminist view continued...)

Responsibility for 'quality time' - Women generally take responsibility for managing the family's 'quality time'. But in late modernity, the 24/7 society and flexible working mean people's time is more fragmented and de-routinised. Working mothers find themselves juggling competing demands on their time. 

The triple shift - Duncombe and Marsden found that women were required not only to carry a dual burden, but a triple shift: emotion work, domestic labour and paid work.

7 of 16

Explaining the gender division of labour

1. The cultural or ideological explanation Patriarchal cultural norms shape gender roles. Women perform more domestic labour because this is what society expects and has socialised them to do. 

The evidence Equality will be achieved only when attitudes, values and expectations, role models and socialisation change. There is some evidence for this:

  • Gershuny argues that couples are adapting to women working full-time, establishinh a new norm of men doing more domestic work. 
  • Kan found younger men do more domestic work.
  • British social attitudes found a long-term change in attitudes.
8 of 16

Explaining the gender division of labour

2. The material or economic explanation Women earn less than men, so it is economically rational for them to do more domestic labour while men spend more time earning money. 

The evidence If women earn as much as their partners, we should see couples doing more equal amounts of domestic work. There is some evidence for this:

  • Arber and Ginn found better-paid women could buy in products and services, e.g. childcare, rather than carrying out domestic tasks themselves. 
  • Ramos found that where the woman is the full-time breadwinner and the man is unemployed, they do equal amounts of domestic labour. 

Note Crompton's view that, since women continue to earn less than men, there is no immediate prospect of a more equal division of labour.

9 of 16

Explaining the gender division of labour

Same-sex couples and gender scripts:

Radical feminists argue that heterosexual relationships are inevitably patiarchal and unequal - even when women are in paid work. They contrast this with same-sex relationships. For example, Dunne's study of 37 lesbian couples with children found a more equal division of labour. Dunne uses the idea of gender scripts:

  • Heterosexuals were socialised into gender scripts that set out different masculine and feminine roles and gender identities.
  • Lesbians did not link household tasks to gender scripts, so they were more open to negotiation and thus more equal.

However, Dunne found that where one partner did much more paid work, they also did less domestic work - i.e. material factors were still an important influence on the division of labour. 

10 of 16

Resources and decision making

Kempson found that women in low-income families denied their own needs to make ends meet. But even in households with adequate incomes, resources are often shared unequally, leaving women in poverty. 

Unequal shares of resources are often the result of who controls the family's income and who makes the decisions about spending it - usually the man. 

Decision making and paid work:

One reason men take a greater share of resources and demand a bigger say in decisions is because they earn more. This is supported by Pahl and Vogler. They identify two types of control over family income:

  • The allowance system, where men work and give their non-working wives an allowance from which they budget to meet the family's needs.
  • Pooling, where partners work and have joint responsibility for spending, e.g. a joint bank account.

There has been a big increase in pooling in recent years. However, Vogler found that men still tended to make major decisions, reflecting their greater earnings. 

11 of 16

Resources and decision making

Professional couples and decision making:

Edgell's study of decision making among professional couples where both partners work full-time also found inequalities. Very important decisions (e.g. about finances or moving house) were taken either by the husband alone or with him having the final say. Important decisions were usually taken jointly. Less important decisions (e.g. food purchases), were usually taken by the wife. 

Explanations There are two main explanations for inequalities in decision making:

  • Material Men have more power in decision making because they earn more. Women are economically dependent, so they have less say.
  • Cultural Feminists argue that gender role socialisation in patriachal society instils the idea that men are the decision-makers. 
12 of 16

Resources and decision making

The personal life perspective on money:

The personal life perspective focuses on the meanings couples give to who controls the money. The meanings that money may have in relationships cannot be taken for granted.

Nyman argues that different couples give money different meanings. These meanings reflect the nature of the relationship.

Smart found that some same-sex couples did not see the control of money as meaning either equality or inequality. This may be because they do not enter relationships with the same 'heterosexual baggage of cultural meanings' that see money as a source of power. 

Hence Smart argues that it is essential to start from the personal meanings of the actors involved in the situation.

Use this idea to evaluate cultural and material explanations of decision making.

13 of 16

Domestic violence


Domestic violence is too widespread to be just the behaviour of a few 'disturbed' individuals. The British Crime Survey estimated that there are 6.6 million assaults per year. However, assaults are not random - they are mainly by men against women.

According to the BCS, nearly 1 in 4 women is assaulted by her partner at some time. However, police statistics under-estimate its extent because of under-reporting and under-recording:

Under-reporting Domestic violence is the violent crime least likely to be reported to police. The BCS estimated that under a third of assaults are reported. Yearnshire found that on average a women suffers 35 assaults before reporting abuse. 

Under-recording Police are often unwilling to record, investigate or prosecute domestic violence because they are reluctant to become involved in the 'private sphere' of the family. They often take the viewthat individuals are free to leave if unhappy. In fact, many women cannot leave because they and their children are financially dependent on their partners. 

14 of 16

Domestic violence

Radical feminist explanation:

Radical feminists see domestic violence as the result of patriarchy. In their view, all societies are patriarchal and the key division is between men and women.

  • Men oppress women, mainly through the family, where they benefit from women's unpaid domestic labour and sexual services. Domestic violence (or the threat of it) enables men to control women, so it is inevitable in patriachal society. 
  • Men also dominate the state and this explains why the police and courts fail to take domestic violence seriously. 

Dobash and Dobash provide supporting evidence. They found violence was triggered when husbands felt their authority was being challenged. They conclude that marriage legitimates violence by giving power to men.  

Radical feminism explains why most violence is by men against women. It doesn't explain violence by women against men, children or lesbian partners. Elliot argues that not all men benefit from it. 

15 of 16

Domestic violence

The materialist explanation:

This focuses on economic factors such as inequalities in income and housing to explain why some groups are more at risk. 

Women are not the only group at risk. Other groups likely to be victims include:

  • children and young people, the poor and lower classes, and alcohol and illegal drug users. 

Lack of resources Wilkinson and Pickett argue that these patterns are a result of stress on the family caused by social inequality. Families that lack resources - e.g. low income, poor housing - suffer more stress and this increases the risk of violence.

Marxist feminists also see inequality producing domestic violence. Ansley argues that male workers exploited at work take out their frustration on their wives.  

This fails to explain why not all male workers commit domestic violence.

16 of 16


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Families and households resources »