Division of Household Labor

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Division of Household Labor

Organized by: Fang Fang, Virginia Tech

Updated by: Jenny Lendrum, Wayne State University

The studies published in Gender & Society from 2000 to 2014 have focused on the change of division of labor at home and the change of gender relations and norms embedded in such division in the era of globalization. The intersectionality of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other important social characteristics and its influence on individual women and men’s family experiences are the new development in the research of division of household labor published in the journal during this period of time. In addition, household activities are no longer examined isolated from the public sphere. The shrinking gap of financial contributions to households between men and women, which is caused by women’s increasing participation in paid work and men’s reduced earning power in the current economic transitional era, have led to the transformation of family structure, from breadwinner-homemaker model to dual-earner arrangement. However, the revolution is stalled as listed studies indicate. First, the women’s housework burden is not reduced in proportion with their increased paid work time, even though men are doing more housework than their fathers’ generation. This “stalled revolution” also refers to the persistence of traditional gender norms of men’s breadwinning role and women’s homemaking role at home where its new structure indicates more gender equality. The incompatibility between structure and ideology explains the persistence of gender inequality of both paid work and unpaid work.

Kenney, Catherine T. 2006. The Power of the Purse Allocative Systems and Inequality in Couple Households. Gender & Society, 20(3): pp. 354-381.

Research in the Unites States concerning the relative access of women and men to financial resources has focused on the influence of women’s increasing market work but has largely overlooked the also critical issue of what happens to money after it enters couple households. To fill this gap, this article employs a typology of household allocative systems developed in Great Britain to analyze money management and control in a sample of U.S. couples drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. I find that the use of these systems varies substantially across socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and relationship status groups, as well as by partners’ relative household contributions. The patterns suggest that many women, already disadvantaged in earnings, either absolutely or relative to their partners, are in couples in which men’s control over or withholding of income may reproduce or exacerbate their earnings disadvantage. 

Sullivan, Oriel. 2004. Changing gender practices within the household a theoretical perspective. Gender & Society, 18 (2): pp. 207-222.

While recent emphasis has been placed on transformations of gender in the public sphere, changes in gender relations between heterosexual couples in the domestic sphere have been less fully developed in the theoretical literature. The author presents evidence for change at various levels, from the discursive to the quantitative. She outlines a theoretical framework for the analysis of such change based on the “doing gender” and gender consciousness perspectives, readdressed in the light of the new emphasis on discourses of reflexivity and intimacy. She argues for a conception of change that is slow and uneven, in which daily practices and interactions are linked to attitudes and discourse, perhaps over generations.

Dalton, Susan E., and Denise D. Bielby. 2000. ‘That’s our kind of constellation’: Lesbian mothers negotiate institutionalized understandings of gender within the family. Gender & Society 14(1):36-61.

This article examines some of the ways that sex, gender, and sexual orientation intersect in lesbian-headed two-parent families, affecting how they construct their roles as mothers. The authors’ analysis of interviews from 14 lesbian mothers remedies this deficiency by focusing both on how they draw upon and transform dominant cultural scripts, practices, and understandings of family roles and relations in order to organize parenting based on the premise of mothering by two women. Their findings reveal how these mothers reinscribed gendered understandings while simultaneously challenging heteronormative ones in their efforts to construct and maintain socially viable two-parent families.

Lan, Pei-Chia. 2003. Maid or madam? Filipina migrant workers and the continuity of domestic labor. Gender and Society 17(2):187-208.

This article examines the complexity of feminized domestic labor in the context of global migration. In this article, unpaid household labor and paid domestic work are not viewed as dichotomous categories but as structural continuities across the public and private spheres. Based on a qualitative study of Filipina migrant domestic workers in Taiwan, the author demonstrates how women travel through the maid/madam boundary-housewives in home countries become breadwinners by doing domestic work overseas, and foreign maids turn into foreign brides. While migrant women sell their domestic labor in the market, they remain burdened with gendered responsibilities in their own families as mothers and wives. Their simultaneous occupancy of paid and unpaid domestic labor is divided into distinct spatial settings. The article also presents women’s agency, which is how they articulate their paid and unpaid domestic labor and bargain with the monetary and emotional value of their labor.

Civettini, Nicole H.W., and Jennifer Glass. 2008. The impact of religious conservatism on men’s work and family involvement. Gender & Society 22(2):172-93.

The social conservatism of evangelical and fundamentalist supports premarital sexual restraint, husband leadership, and father involvement. The authors explore whether religious conservatism affects work–family outcomes of men using the National Survey of Families and Households, 1988 and 1993 waves. The authors hypothesize that men from conservative households will make earlier transitions to adulthood, work fewer hours, and earn less money. Moreover, the belief in strong paternal involvement should lead religiously conservative men to spend more time in housework and child care. Results show that conservative religious affiliation does not hasten the transition to adulthood among men. Current religious conservatism results in lower wages but not reduced work hours, and religious affiliation does not affect division of housework or child care between men and women in religious conservative households.

Thébaud, Sarah. 2010. Masculinity, bargaining, and breadwinning: Understanding men’s housework in the cultural context of paid work. Gender & Society 24(3):330-54.

This research uses data from 18 countries to investigate cross-national differences in the effect that men’s income relative to their spouses has on their involvement in housework. The author hypothesizes that gender expectations will be more salient in men’s household bargaining in contexts where the traditionally masculine and breadwinning-related activities of paid work and earning income are highly valued. Results from analyses of International Social Survey Program (ISSP) data support this hypothesis: Men’s behavior is more consistent with a gender deviance neutralization account than an exchange-bargaining account in cultural contexts where paid work and income are highly valued. In other words, men are more likely to withdraw from housework rather than perform more housework if their wives earn more. The analyses point to the role that expectations about masculinity play in men’s involvement in housework and highlight the significance of cultural context for understanding the link between paid and unpaid work.

Legerski, Elizabeth Miklya, and Marie Cornwall. 2010. Working-class job loss, gender, and the negotiation of household labor. Gender & Society 24(4):447-74.

Scholars see the gendered division of household labor as a stronghold of gender inequality. This article explores changes in household labor and gender relations when conservative, working-class families experience employment disruptions. Using data from 49 qualitative interviews conducted with men and women following the forced unemployment of breadwinning husbands, the authors observe some change in gendered household labor but conclude that a significant degendering of housework is thwarted by institutional-, interactive-, and individual-level processes. At the institutional level, the lack of well-paying jobs for both men and women, and the persistent pattern of gendered division of household tasks discourage change. At the individual level, when no new gender ideologies emerge, challenges to gendered identities of both men and women encourage a reinforcement of traditional gender ideologies. At the interactional level, since neither of spouses press hard for the role change, women’s responsibility for care work and the meaning of paid work for unemployed husbands forestall the adjustment of tasks.

Chesley, Noelle. 2011. Stay-at-home fathers and breadwinning mothers: Gender, couple dynamics, and social change. Gender & Society 25(5):642-64.

The author examines experiences of married couples to better understand whether economic shifts that push couples into gender-atypical work/family arrangements influence gender inequality. She draws on in-depth interviews conducted in 2008 with stay-at-home husbands and their wives in 21 married-couple families with children (42 individual interviews). She finds that the decision to have a father stay home is heavily influenced by economic conditions, suggesting that men’s increased job instability and shifts in the relative employment conditions of husbands and wives push some men into at-home fatherhood. However, this shift in family arrangements can promote change toward greater gender equality even in couples that initially hold traditional gender-role beliefs. The data indicate that at-home fathers come to value their increased involvement in children’s care in ways. This type of change might reduce gender differences in parenting and have the potential to translate into institutional change, particularly when fathers reenter the labor force. Furthermore, at-home father arrangements generally appear to provide increased support for women’s employment and promote changes in women’s work behavior that may reduce inequities that stem from traditionally gendered divisions in work/family responsibilities.

Hoang, Lan Anh, and Brenda S. A. Yeoh. 2011. Breadwinning wives and “left-behind” husbands: Men and masculinities in Vietnamese transnational family. Gender & Society 25(6):717-39.

This article explores an aspect of women’s transnational labor migration that has been understudied in many labor-sending countries: how men experience shifts in the household labor division triggered by women’s migration. In so doing, it sheds light on the diverse ways notions of masculinity and gender identities are being reworked and renegotiated in the transnational family. Drawing on qualitative data collected from in-depth interviews with carers of left-behind children in Northern Vietnam, this article shows how men are confronted with the need to take on child care duties, which have traditionally been ascribed to women, while at the same time being under considerable pressure to live up to locally accepted masculinity ideals attached to the breadwinner role. Instead of applying pressure on the woman to remit, they worked longer hours (and thus spent less time with and for the children) or borrowed money from other people to pay for daily expenses (if possible). Its findings contradict the portrayal in the literature of men falling into pieces or resorting to hypermasculinity in the face of losing their economic power and challenge the assumption that women’s increased mobility and economic power leads to a “crisis” of masculinities. The study also reemphasizes the complexity and malleability of lived gender relations and identities.

Rehel, Erin M. 2014. When dad stays home too: Paternity leave, gender, and parenting. Gender & Society 28(1):110-32.

Drawing from 85 semi-structured interviews with fathers and mothers in three cities (Montreal, Toronto, and Chicago), the author argued that when fathers in heterosexual couples experience the transition to parenthood in ways that are structurally comparable to mothers, they come to think about and enact parenting in ways that are more similar to mothers. Leave-taking fathers gained a broader understanding of parenting than fathers who did not take leave. She considered the specific role played by extended time off immediately after the birth of a child in structuring that experience. By drawing fathers into the daily realities of child care, free of workplace constraints, extended time off provides the space necessary for fathers to develop the parenting skills and sense of responsibility that then allows them to be active co-parents rather than helpers to their female partners. This article also demonstrates the promising ways government supported paternal leave-taking can lead to men becoming active and responsible co-parents. The shift from a manager-helper dynamic to that of co-parenting creates the opportunity for the development of a more gender-equitable division of labor.