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Gender-Based Household Divisions of Labour

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5439 words Published: 6th Jul 2018

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Literature Review

Household Labour Defined

The Gender Gap

Research Methods

Analysis Methods

Historic Housework Gender Divisions 

Global Housework Gender Divisions

Reasons for Gender Gap







This study considers the gender gap in performance of household labour and its change over time, particularly in the last fifty years. Methods that others have used to research and analyse household labour, historic and multi-cultural gender divisions, reasons for the current and historic gender gap from a sociological perspective. This research then determines the most effective methods of data gathering and analysis and examines several studies over the last fifty years to conclude that the gender gap in household work is actually shrinking, albeit more slightly than some contend due to societal changes. Proposals for overcoming the disparity in household labour performance are assessed from a variety of published literature. Conclusions are drawn regarding the most likely factors affecting changes to the gender gap, namely changes in gender identities from a societal standpoint. Recommendations for further research and actions to further redu ce the housework disparity conclude the study.

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Almost all research conducted in the past one hundred years has overwhelmingly and consistently supported a disparity between the household labour performed by women and men, with women typically outperforming men both in terms of more distasteful tasks and number of hours by significant margins. Since the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1960s, however, some inroads have been made regarding closing the gap between male and female performance. These must be weighed in light of overall changes in societal expectations and practise of household labour, but do show a trend towards greater egalitarianism in housework performance.

This research begins with a thorough consideration of published literature regarding gender division of household labour and how such studies have been conducted and analysed, with reference to historic and multi-cultural gender divisions and sociological reasons for the persistent gender gap in housework performance. A survey of secondary research using the most accurate and informative data gathering methods is then conducted to determine whether the gender gap is indeed closing and if so, why, or whether broader societal and technological changes are merely affecting the performance of housework in general.

The study concludes with recommendations for further research and suggestions from both others and the author regarding ways of moving towards a more egalitarian division of household labour performance.


As it applies directly or indirectly to almost everyone, much research and study has been performed regarding housework, the perceptions of those who perform it, and the assignment of household labour tasks within the home or family. This literature review provides a brief survey of some of these studies. An overview of the gender gap will be followed by six broad areas of consideration. First, the various methods by which housework study is conducted will be examined, as claims of inaccuracy are rampant for certain research methods. Similar consideration of different ways of analysing and interpreting this data follows. An overview of historic housework assignment, with particular focus on gender divisions and Britain, includes information stretching back several hundred years but concentrates on the previous century through the present, when statistical analysis and similar data began to be generated. Views of housework and gender division of tasks in other countries allow for a more holistic consideration of the topic. Finally, reasons for the gap between performance of household labour between men and women are from various studies are presented, with a number of researchers assertions of ways to overcome such disparity.

Household Labour Defined

In any study of household labour, also referred to as simply housework in this research, it is first beneficial to define what is meant by or included in the term. Some studies, for example, include only inside household tasks such as cleaning and cooking, excluding outside work such as gardening and exterior home repairs. Some studies include childcare as a household task; others place it in a separate category or do not include it. Lee and Waite (2005) note some research is based on a more restricted definition of housework, limited to physical tasks such as cleaning, cooking and laundry, whilst some include intangible components of household management, such as providing advice or encouragement, or planning and managing household tasks.

For the purpose of this study all non-employment household tasks will be included, grouped broadly into inside and outside tasks, primarily because gender divisions often fall along these categorical divisions. Inside tasks are those performed inside the home, whilst tasks performed outside (yard work, taking out rubbish) fall in the latter category. In addition, based on the work of Coltrane (2000), tasks may be alternatively be considered from the standpoint of routine or occasional as another, and also typical, gender division. Coltrane (2000) defines routine tasks as the most time-consuming and most frequently performed, with little allowance for flexibility in task scheduling. Typical routine tasks include cooking, cleaning, shopping, and laundry. Occasional tasks, in comparison, are not as time-consuming on a daily basis and hence require less frequent performance, allowing more flexibility and discretion in when they are performed. Yard maintenance, home repairs (interior or exterior), and paying bills are typical occasional tasks.

Childcare will be considered in a separate category, although part of the overall household labour workload. This type of grouping is supported by many researchers such as Oakley (1981), Brines (1994), Press and Townsley (1998) and Alenezi and Walden (2004), who include childcare in household labour but place it in a separate category. Child rearing activities, such as bathing, disciplining, and the like may also be separated from recreational activities involving children, such as taking a child to the park or on an outing. In addition, Bianchi et al (2000) note that childcare is also an activity typically done in conjunction with other tasks, such as minding children whilst cooking or cleaning, or helping with homework whilst folding laundry. This is a further consideration when defining time spent and proportional contribution to household functioning.

For the purposes of this study, therefore, all tasks involved in the establishment and maintenance of a household, including care for the persons of the household, are considered household labour or housework. Divisions within this household labour are made when specified, typically due to existing or to highlight gender differences between categories.

The Gender Gap

Current and recent historical culture in Britain and similar Western nations reveals a disparity in the performance of household tasks between women and men. Termed the ‘Gender Gap,’ this difference in housework reflects a much higher proportion of typical tasks performed by women than by men, even in dual-earner situations. Whilst there are other factors contributing to difference in allocation of household work, such as education, culture, and social class, Oakley (1974, 1981), Orbuch and Eyster (1997), Coltrane (2000), Lee (2002), Davis and Greenstein (2004), and Lee and Waite (2005) and many others have determined that gender plays a major role in task and work disparity, and this will be examined more fully under “Reasons for the Gender Gap” later in this literature review. General explanation of the gap itself is provided in this section of this study.

Baxter (2001), after considering a number of studies regarding housework and gender, concludes “women do a much larger proportion of child care and routine indoor housework tasks than men, regardless of marital status” (19). This is supported by similar reviews of literature by Berk (1985), Ross (1987), Becker (1991), Ferree (1991), Brines (1993), Greenstein (1996), Orbuch and Eyster (1997), Coltrane (2000), Lee (2002), Davis and Greenstein (2004), and Lee and Waite (2005). The number of hours women spend has been declining over time, from over sixty hours per week prior to 1970, as reported by Oakley (1974) and others, to less than twenty in current reports such as Lee and Waite (2005), with men’s hours moving from less than three to nearly ten in some research. However, a substantial gap between men and women’s contributions to household labour still exists, as documented by Lee (2002), Rivières-pigeon, Saurel-Cubi zolles and Romito (2002), Alvarez and Miles (2003), Davis and Greenstein (2004), Alenezi and Walden (2004), Leonard (2004), Lee and Waite (2005). A gender gap between the types of household tasks performed also remains prevalent, with men performing more outdoor housework activities and fewer routine, inside tasks or childcare activities. Men are also more likely to describe their activities as enjoyable, such as playing with children or yard work, whilst women’s participation in activities they describe as enjoyable, such as baking and decorating, have decreased with fewer hours devoted to household work. Baxter (2001) concludes that in all reviewed studies “the differences are quite stark” (19). “Wives spend substantially more time than their husbands on family work, even though women do less and men do slightly more now than 20 years ago” (Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer & Robinson 2000, 192).

It was initially expected that with the growth of the women’s movement the gender gap would disappear. For example, Leonard (2004) reports “a number of UK studies optimistically predicted that women’s entry to paid work outside the household would be accompanied by men’s increased participation in unpaid work within the household” (73). Unfortunately, research in the UK and elsewhere continues to “demonstrate the resilience of traditional gender roles within the household irrespective of women’s labour market status” (Leonard 2004, 73). This research will later examine the narrowing of this gender gap and the reasons behind both its continued existence and gradual lessening.

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Research Methods

When comparing secondary data, it is important to consider the methods implemented in data collection. In direct relation to this study, for example, Lee and Waite (2005) amongst others found “conclusions about the size of the gender gap in housework depend substantially on who provides the information about time spent on housework, what information that person is asked to provide, and how housework is defined” (334). Shelton and John (1996) and Coltrane (2000) list typical methods of data collection regarding household labour distribution and performance include interviews, surveys, time-diaries, and most recently electronic recording methods. Lee and Waite (2005) explain that interviews and surveys typically ask respondents to estimate the number of hours and type of tasks they or their spouses spend performing housework tasks. Time-diary studies ask respondents to report all their daily activities, usually within the day be ing tracked or by the next day at the latest.

It is not surprising, therefore, that differences in time of reporting lead to differences in accuracy. Becker (1991), Lee and Waite (2005) and others have all found that interviews and surveys, which require respondents to both recall and estimate contributions and tasks, are highly inaccurate. Time-diaries, which require respondents to document how they spend their time daily or throughout the day, are significantly more accurate, as supported by Becker (1991), Bianchi et al (2000), and Lee and Waite (2005). For example, Bianchi et al (2000) reports a typical difference of fifteen hours per week reported by men and women regarding women’s household labour, and a typical difference of nearly four hours in reporting of men’s contribution. Similarly, Press and Townsley (1998) report that, on average, husbands estimated spending approximately eighteen hours per week on household tasks, whilst wives estimated their husbands contribution at just under thirteen hours per week, a statistically significant difference.

In comparing data from electronic data recording versus data from similar populations collected by survey, Lee and Waite (2005) concluded “wives make accurate estimates of husbands’ time on housework, whereas husbands overestimate their own time” (333). They additionally found some evidence that both wives and husbands may substantially overestimate the amount of time wives spend on housework. For example, Lee and Waite (2005) found wives’ responses to survey questions regarding hours spent on housework estimated twenty-six hours per week of household work, but measurement of the same individuals via an electronic data recording system (ESM) resulted in an average of only fifteen hours per week. In all, the differences between survey measures and ESM [electronic data recording] time-use measures are statistically significant and-for some estimates-quite substantial” (333).

Further, broader consideration of types of tasks within household labour resulted in greater hours of contribution on the part of men, but made little difference in the weekly housework hours of women. For example, Lee (2004) found that whilst in one study both types of childcare activities were counted equally towards housework contribution, husbands’ time “tended to involve recreational activities rather than those tasks that constitute the daily grind of child rearing,” which were left to women (254). Baxter (2001) similarly found that men participated in housework primarily on weekends, and tended to perform occasional tasks such as yard work; women performed housework tasks throughout the week and weekend, being responsible for almost all routine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

Analysis Methods

Research is equally divergent in the methods of analysis employed to interpret data regarding gender divisions in household labour. Some methods , such as commonly used empirical models, focus solely on time allocation and the variables contributing to allocation decisions. Bargaining models, time allocation models, and the household production model are three of the more common of these types of analysis methods.

Mahoney (1995) describes various bargaining theories, which contend that since women earn less, they have less power in the household and are therefore relegated to performing the majority of housework tasks. For example, Alvarez and Miles (2003) found women with university degrees, and hence greater earning power, have reduced housework time. Alenezi & Walden (2004) note, however, that the inverse is true for husbands. The more educated a man is, the more likely he is to contribute a greater number of hours to housework. Bargaining models in general, however, as summarized by Alenezi and Walden (2004) all present consumption and labour supply within the family based on some form of bargaining between family members based on each member’s earning potential and similar characteristics. This type of analysis generally categorises the various attributes, market wage, and similar for family members and uses such categorisation to evaluate gender divisio n of household labour.

Time allocation models, in contrast, contend that individual contribution to household tasks is based on available time. Each family member individually determines contribution to the household based on market wages, leisure activities, and family consumption. Bittman et al (2001) notes that these analysis methods, however, do explain in part the differences in the effects of certain variables, such as education level, on men and women within a household. As Alenezi and Walden (2004) describe, time allocation theories are difficult to use as a basis of empirical research, as they depend on individual decision versus measurable inputs. This form of analysis typically begins with the labour division and works back into variables, rather than documenting variables and then considering activity, as is typical of bargaining theories.

Becker (1991) presents the most often used method of analysis for time allocation of household labour, the household production model. This analysis method divides the household consumption of goods into those that are market-produced and those that are household-produced, and measures household utility and the gender division of household tasks, as described by Alenezi and Walden (2004) as “a function of the consumption of market-produced goods, household-produced goods, and leisure time of the husband and wife”(83). Bryant (1990) describes how households “spend” their two major resources, money and time. In certain circumstances, a household might spend more money to save time, such as by using outside cleaners or eating take out food. In other circumstances, the family may chose to spend time, painting a room themselves rather than hiring the painting out, for example. A lenezi and Walden (2004) conclude “households make decisions about using time working for pay, working on household tasks, like child-rearing and meal preparation, or for enjoyment (leisure)” (81).

Berk (1985) criticises the household production model as making undocumented assumptions about joint production, preferences, and estimation of the shadow price of housework, but it remains one of the few empirical analysis methods that factors in a large number of variables and takes into consideration complexity and diversity within and between households. As Alenezi and Walden (2004) assert, the household production model “still remains the standard for analyzing household time allocation due to its ability to account for many complex relationships in household decision-making” (86).

Some researchers such as Bittman et al (2001) and Alvarez and Miles (2003) contend, however, that empirical analysis methods such as those described above place too much emphasis on economic variables in general, and therefore explain only a limited share of the inequality in housework performance. As Oakley (1981) and Becker (1991) describe, gender division in household labour can also be considered from a more sociological approach. Becker (1991) affords that sociological theoretical models offer a wide and divergent variety of explanations for the unequal division of housework tasks along gender lines, but all provide relevant areas of consideration. For example, Alenezi & Walden (2004) contend, “differences between husbands’ and wives’ housework time, spousal age, educational attainment, and number of children by age should be highlighted” (101).

Given the difficulty in practise of considering the wide number of variables that could play into gender division of household labour, however, many studies choose to concentrate on the societal and sociological implications of one or two of what the individual researchers consider to be the most important or effectual inputs. As such, many studies have considered the impact of education levels, presence of children, age, social class, race, and value beliefs as determinants of household labour allocation.

One of the most often considered variables is gender identity. As Oakley (1981) describes, men and women are instructed in what their particular society considers appropriate gender roles and actions from an early age. As such, women in Britain are typically raised to believe that housework is their responsibility, and therefore perform the bulk of household tasks. In this analysis, which will be described in greater detail later in this study in the section presenting reasons for the gender gap, researchers examine the development of gender identity, then its impact on household labour allocation, and further investigate impacts of changes in gender roles across society on household functioning.

Historic Housework Gender Divisions

Oakley (1974) provides a thorough and insightful study of historic gender divisions of household labour in Europe, concentrating on Britain. Prior to the nineteenth century, women were typically employed in the family business, as were the rest of family members. This business was housed within the home, and all members of the family might perform a given household task. Fathers were considerably more involved in child rearing, and tasks such as cleaning and cooking were not divided along gender lines. Women were often equal partners in business with their husbands, could be afforded guild membership on their own standing, inherited their husband’s trade privileges upon his death (versus them passing to a son), and “were not prevented from entering any occupation by reason of their sex” (31). As such, Oakley (1974) describes women as always occupying the role of productive worker, earning a market wage and enjoying ful l market employment participation.

In the 1800s, Oakley (1974) describes the gradual displacement of vocation from the home to the factory. Women followed their traditional work out of the home and into the factories through the middle of the century. In fact, men, women, and children often worked side-by-side in various factory endeavours, just as they had in home-based vocational activity. However, this societal movement of employment from home to factory meant multiple family members were no longer physically present within the household to perform housework tasks or render childcare for small children. By the 1840s, societal pressure began on women to remain at home to render these services, and a simultaneous and not surprising belief became popular that women were naturally domestic and the appropriate carers for children. Male factory workers also began to ask for limits on child and female labour, ostensibly for the women and children’s own protection. By the end of the 1880s, the traditio nal role of women had shifted to the keeper of the home and rearer of children, whilst men had assumed sole provider role and worker outside the home.

In the early 1900s through the Second World War, women were typically employed outside the home until marriage, at which time they left paid employment and assumed responsibility for housework tasks. Most women lived with their families until their marriage, and assisted their own mothers with work in that household but were not primarily responsible. After the war, women typically worked until their first child was expected, and often returned to paid work after their children left home. However, the notion of housework as a women’s responsibility was already culturally entrenched, and continued regardless of her employment status. This was supported by various legislative measures. For example, both Ireland and Britain had ‘marriage bars,’ which legally excluded married women from working in public service or administration. Leonard (2004) notes that in Ireland, “up until 1973, women had to leave paid employment in the public sector upon getting mar ried” (74).

This sole responsibility for household management was not a light one, either in terms of hours or tasks. Summarising a number of studies conducted in Britain, France, and the United States from the 1920s through the 1970s, Oakley (1974) reports that average hours of housework performed by women consistently ranks over sixty hours per week, with women in urban areas often averaging over seventy hours per week of labour. As of the early 1970s, Oakley (1974) reports a British study found eighty-five per cent of all women between the ages of sixteen and sixty-four were housewives, “they carried the responsibility for running the household in which they lived,” and “nine out of ten women who were not employed were housewives, so were seven out of ten of those with a job outside the home” (6). She concludes that housework is therefore clearly women’s major occupation.

Important conclusions from historical data related to gender division of household tasks are that the notion of housewifery as a “natural” condition of women is a recent one, and not supported in previous centuries. Although various ethological, anthropological, and sociological “proofs” have been offered for a woman’s role as primarily wife and mother, Oakley (1981) demonstrates that these are not supported either historically or cross-culturally. She further contends that both housework allocation and “the impact of childbirth on the roles of parents in clearly a cultural construct,” and as such should be an area given consideration as needing change, rather than held as a biological absolute.

Global Housework Gender Divisions

Indeed, when considering gender division of housework cross-culturally, many assumptions regarding appropriate gender roles breakdown, particularly when considering cultures outside the capitalist Western model. Using data from the International Social Justice Project, Davis and Greenstein (2004) describe the division of housework tasks in married couple households across twelve nations: four Western nations (Great Britain, the United States, Germany, and The Netherlands), seven former Soviet nations (Russia, Slovenia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary), and one Asian nation (Japan). Of note, as some data is historic, it divided East and West Germany, which the researchers took into account in analysis.

Oakley (1974) quotes Lenin as writing, “No nation can be free when half the population is enslaved in the kitchen” (222). Not surprisingly, some of the former Soviet countries in Davis and Greenstein’s (2004) research evidenced the smallest gender gap in household labour. In Russia, for example, sixty-seven per cent of men and sixty per cent of women feel that housework is equally divided, with less than ten per cent of women or men allocating such work always to the wife. Interestingly, research exampled by Davis and Greenstein (2004) in post-Soviet Russia stated that fewer Russians believed they had egalitarian marriages in 1995 than in 1989, a demonstration of perception and practise change accompanying dramatic societal reforms. Such results reinforce the concept of gender divisions in household labour being culturally rather than biologically based.

In a similar example, whilst Estonian households had traditionally divided household labour along gender lines prior to Communism, at the close of the Soviet era Davis and Greenstein (2004) report they had moved significantly toward shared housework, with over forty per cent of households reporting equal contributions. “Estonian women’s attitudes reflected a desire for personal efficacy rather than a complete focus on their husbands’ demands” (Davis and Greenstein 2004, 1263). Considering gender patterns over time, Davis and Greenstein (2004) reported several other research studies found “Czech women’s and men’s time spent on household work is becoming more similar, mainly because of the changing employment patterns of Czech women,” and “Czech households were more egalitarian in their division of labour than were Hungarian and Polish households” (1262). Poland was typical of half the f ormer Soviet nations and all Western nations in the study, with Polish women performing the majority of the housework regardless of their education or employment status, men’s housework contributions increasing with their education levels, and the most egalitarian division of housework responsibly in couples where both spouses are employed and have high levels of education.

British, Dutch, and German women all were substantially more responsible for household labour than their former-Soviet counterparts, with over sixty-five per cent of households reporting household labour as primarily or always a duty of the wife, and twenty-five per cent or less reporting an equal distribution of work. Davis and Greenstein (2004) found Dutch women experienced the greatest disparity, with over seventy per cent of men and eighty per cent of women reporting housework as primarily or always the responsibility of the wife. Gender allocation of housework in the Netherlands is most affected by the presence of young children and the husband’s economic resources, with education also being a relevant variable. For example, the higher the education level of the couple together, the greater the husbands’ contribution to household work; when the wife has slightly more education than her husband, the husband performs more housework; but when she h as a significantly more education than he, there is no increase in his household contributions.

Similar studies in Spain, Ireland and Germany reinforce cultural differences, even amongst European nations. In a study of dual-earner couples in Spain, Alvarez and Miles (2003) found persistent gender inequality of similar per cents to the Davis and Greenstein overview. In addition, education levels of the man were found to effect division of household labour, whilst the woman’s education and earning power had little effect. The researchers concluded, “habitual patterns of gender-differentiated activity at home are mainly the result of gender identities” (240). Alvarez and Miles (2003) find opinion polls demonstrating a clear trend in Spanish attitudes towards egalitarian gender division of labor, more so amongst younger respondents. However, similar to their findings in most developed countries Alvarez and Miles (2003) report that behaviour has changed much less than attitude and as much as two thirds of the total housework is perfo rmed by women, particularly the more repetitive or physically demanding work.

Leonard (2004) reports that in the past two centuries, Irish society “has placed a great deal of emphasis on women’s role as mothers, “ with the 1937 Irish Constitution specifically referencing “the special contribution to Irish society of women ‘within the home’” (74). Cooke (2004) uses the German SocioEconomic Panel to explore the division of domestic labour in Germany, finding “East German men report that they contribute a significantly greater percentage of household time than West German men” (1251). Also of note in the German study, men’s increased share of housework also increases the likelihood of divorce in childless couples, leading Cooke (2004) to conclude that within German society “childless couples with fewer gendered family roles (given the absence of mother and father roles) are more stable when they have more traditional gendered displays in the remaining domestic areas.

Using data from the International Social Justice Project previously mentioned, Davis and Greenstein (2004) found support for bargaining power models in the United States, which had the greatest equality of distribution of household labour of any of the Western nations studied. US households were much more influenced by the wife’s participation in the workforce, with husbands performing at least half the housework twice as often in dual-earner families than in families where only the husband was employed outside the home. The wife’s income level had little effect on divisio


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