Why gender can trump reciprocity

Sayings such as “what you give is what you get” and “one good turn deserves another” are everyday descriptions of reciprocity – the idea that gifts demand a return. Academics across various disciplines stress the importance of reciprocity to society. But are men and women equally likely to secure reciprocity? Feminists have long exposed the invisibility of women’s caring labor. Our study examined whether returns to “gifts of labor” (such as child care, gardening and repairs) were influenced by gender.

reciprocityWe analyzed this question using data gathered in Russia – interviews with 55 women and 47 men in middle-age we have been following for 10 years. We identified 43 cases of “gifts of labor”  in our data, 13 provided by men, and 30 by women. Our analysis revealed stark gender differences. Although women provided more regular and intensive help than men, a third of them complained of unreturned favours, whereas no men did. Moreover, the most onerous forms of help, which limited women’s employment options, were those least likely to be reciprocated.

This paradox is exemplified by Galya’s case. In 1999, aged 54, Galya began caring for her granddaughter, and the two grandmothers of her daughter-in-law, one of whom was paralyzed. Galya gave up work, and went to her son’s daily “like to a job.” This continued for five years, until both grandmothers died. During this time Galya lost her professional contacts, and afterwards was only able to find work as a cleaner.

Yet Galya reported receiving nothing in return for this heroic labor. The only presents she received were shabby cast-offs, while her son, who ran a market stall, never offered her free groceries, leaving her to purchase them from his staff.

How can such a flagrant violation of the “rule” of reciprocity be explained? Only by understanding the power of gender. Galya felt that she “had to help,” that she couldn’t “abandon them all.” As a grandmother approaching retirement age, Galya felt that this labor was her unavoidable duty.  Her son, likewise, seemed to view his mother’s help as a maternal obligation rather than a gift – this appears the only reasonable explanation for his behavior.   Galya carried on giving in the face of ingratitude, because of her concern for those she cared for, and because she felt it was a (grand)mother’s responsibility.

This example shows how gender norms can “trump” reciprocity. Gifts (mis)perceived as a gendered obligation need no return.

By Sarah Ashwin on her article “Gendering Reciprocity: Solving a Puzzle on Nonreciprocation,” published in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society.


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