Domestic Division of LaborThis is a featured page

The readings for this week in the course all address questions of domestic division of labor, based on studies in the United States and United Kingdom.

All of the authors write from an assumption that equitable division of domestic labor between men and women is a desirable social goal. They vary in their optimism or pessimism with regard to the extent to which recent historical changes have moved society toward such a condition and the likelihood that greater equity can be achieved. Sullivan (2004) seems the most optimistic among these particular authors. She argues for a gradual, though nevertheless substantial, change toward greater equity in domestic labor. Vincent et al. (2004) on the other hand seem more pessimistic. They seem almost despondent in fact, that “We had expected more differences between families . . . However, we found a surprisingly uniform picture . . . What we have found difficult was finding fathers who were significantly involved in childcare.” (2004:585).

Reflecting readings earlier in the course and a range of studies elsewhere, the trends in the US and UK have been (from about 1950 to 2000) a significant decline in women’s (unpaid) domestic labor, a slight up-tick in men’s, but a still substantial gap. For instance, in Table 1 in Cohen (2004:247), the percentage of women who’s primary occupation was keeping house halved from 1973 to 1993; while the percentage of men increased five-fold. That certainly sounds like substantial movement toward “equity”; unless you look at the actual figures, showing that the rate for women dropped from 528 in 1000 to 262 in 1000; while men changed from 2 in 1000 to 10 in 1000. There remain more than 26 times as many women than men in this category.

One theme running through all of these articles is that of struggle and negotiation, such as in Sullivan (2004:208): “Changes (in domestic division of labor) have been struggled for, fought over, and hard won over decades not only in the public and private arena but also in innumerable daily contestations and negotiations.”

There seems to be a general agreement (perhaps implicit or unreflective) that domestic work is a site of struggle. We could contemplate if it could be any other way? This has become the dominant paradigm for conceptualizing domestic work – as a site of everyday politics – largely in reaction to an earlier, perhaps “Parsonian” theory of normative social roles, which reified and naturalized “housework” by “housewives”. This is now rejected in favor of an (implicit?) contest or conflict theory.

While my inclination (both via theoretical training and personal politics/ethics) is to agree with the current (conflict) view, it might do us well to interrogate it. (Though in so doing, the danger is to reassert normative-role thinking, which is also very problematic; cf. Vincent et al. 2004:585)

If housework is a site of struggle, it seems to be one in which men perpetually “win”. Why is that the case?

If housework is a site of struggle, and if men do perpetually win, what interest would they have in participating in housework to a greater degree?

What is the upside for men of a more equitable distribution of domestic work? (Is it merely a sense of “justice” and if so, is that a very powerful incentive; as opposed to self-interest?)

One article (Vincent et al.?) refers to Hochschild’s famous study of The Double Shift (1989), and notes that the inequity of domestic labor distribution puts a strain on heterosexual relationships (specifically marriage). That would imply one reason to seek equity – if less strain made everyone happier. But here we might want to interrogate Hochschild’s findings and argument more closely. Does greater equity lead to less strain all around or only for women? Since men seem disinclined to do domestic work, it seems that some leverage is needed to make them do it (socially, interpersonally within couples, or otherwise). Are men invested enough in “reducing strain on the relationship” to take the initiative to do housework, or would they just as soon let the relationship disintegrate as pick up their socks?


Cohen, Philip N. (2004) “The Gender Division of Labor: ‘Keeping House’ and Occupational Segregation in the United States,” Gender and Society 18(2):239-252

Gupta, Sanjiv (2006) “The Consequences of Maternal Employment During Men’s Childhood for Their Adult Housework Performance,” Gender and Society 20(1):60-86.

Singley, Susan G. and Kathryn Hynes (2005) “Transitions to Parenthood: Work-Family Policies, Gender and Couple Context,” Gender and Society 19(3):376-397

Sullivan, Oriel (2004) “Changing Gender Practices within the Household: A Theoretical Perspective,” Gender and Society 18(2):207-222

Vincent, Carol, Stephen J. Ball, Soile Pietikainen (2004) “Metropolitan Mothers: Mothers, Mothering and Paid Work,” Women’s Studies International Forum 27:571-587

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