domestic division of labour

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The division of tasks, roles, and duties within the household. With the increased entry of married women into formal employment, sociologists began to look more closely at the processes that linked home and work-place, including the question of whether or not women's increased involvement in paid labour led to a renegotiation of the ‘traditional’ domestic roles and organization of domestic labour. A huge empirical and theoretical literature was then generated in a relatively short time.

Early studies cast doubts on the optimistic view (advanced, for example, by Michael Young and Peter Wilmott in The Symmetrical Family, 1973) that, especially among the middle classes, husband and wife were increasingly sharing in the complementary (hitherto largely segregated) tasks of earning a wage and running a household. Thus, Robert O. Blood and Donald M. Wolfe (Husbands and Wives, 1960) found that, among a large sample of families in Detroit, the sex segregation of domestic tasks was largely unchanged: men performed outdoor tasks requiring ‘mechanical aptitude’ while women did housework. Similar findings are reported in Ann Oakley's The Sociology of Housework (1974) and Stephen Edgell's Middle Class Couples (1980). Research by Rhona and Robert N. Rapoport on dual-career marriages drew attention to the role conflict confronting the women, a conflict which frequently resulted in them shouldering a ‘double burden’ of accepting primary responsibility for traditional domestic labour, but also holding down a paid job.

More recent studies have documented in great detail the extent to which the traditional allocation of domestic tasks to women remains largely unaltered. An excellent summary of the findings from this explosion of research is Lydia Morris's The Workings of the Household (1990). She concludes that the American and British studies produce parallel findings, the most important of which are as follows: women, including employed women, continue to bear the main burden of domestic work; men's (slightly) increased participation in domestic labour does not offset women's increased employment; women in part-time employment fare worst, possibly because of a life-cycle effect, which creates extra work associated with caring for young children; men tend nevertheless to be more involved with domestic tasks at this stage of the life-cycle than at other stages; there is relative stability in the level of housework time expended by men whether the wife works or not. Differences in emphasis and on points of detail across these studies are interesting, but insignificant when set against the central and often confirmed finding echoed by Sarah F. Berk, to the effect that ‘husband's employment activities and the individual characteristics that establish husbands in the occupational sphere are the most critical determinants of total household market time… [whilst]…few married men engage in significant amounts of household labour and child care’ (The Gender Factory, 1985). See also conjugal role; household allocative system; sex roles; sexual division of labour.

Subjects: Sociology.

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