The gender roles that define what it is to be female or male within a culture have historically placed the responsibility for child care and housework on the woman. This situation originated due to biological considerations such as the need for women to nurse a child and men being physiologically more suited to face the dangers of the outside world. While the reasons for the division of labor as traditionally practiced have changed, mostly due to industrialization, many couples have difficulty with the equal sharing of domestic tasks for a number of reasons, including the close association of gender identity and housework, gatekeeping and managerial responsibility associated with domestic responsibilities, and issues of standards for child care and household chores. Although some couples still use the traditional gender roles to apportion domestic responsibilities, others are trying different divisions of labor, with advancements in modern technology making this easier. As increasing numbers of couples take more egalitarian attitudes toward domestic responsibilities, it is likely that the norms of society will gradually change to make this situation more acceptable.
Keywords Culture; Economic Development; Gender; Gender Identity; Gender Role; Gender Stereotype; Information Technology; Norms; Postindustrial; Sex; Social Construct; Socialization; Society; Telework
Traditional Division of Labor
Within the home, there has traditionally been a division of labor based on gender. Although in some cultures today this structure is being replaced by a more egalitarian one, traditionally, women and men have each had their own set of responsibilities in the home, typically based on the perceived abilities and demands on each of the sexes. In virtually every culture and society around the planet, women have the primary responsibility for child care. Although alternatives for breast-feeding exist today, historically it has only been the woman who has been able to nurse the child and therefore ensure the survival of the race. Similarly, hunting and waging war are traditional responsibilities for the men of a culture. This division of labor arose due to the physical capacities of women (e.g., their size, shape, and strength), women's psychological and psychological makeup (hypothetically), and women's reproductive biology, all of which made them less suited than men for war and hunting. Conversely, the physical capacities, psychological makeup, and reproductive biology of men made them less suited for home life and more suited for hunting and war. While norms regarding child care tend to be fairly consistent (at least historically) from culture to culture, all the aspects of the division of labor between the sexes are not. For example, in some societies, women care for fowl, small animals, or dairy animals, and in other societies men have these responsibilities. Although the norms for division of labor between the sexes differ from culture to culture, every culture does have norms regarding the division of labor between the sexes.
Sex vs. Gender
To understand the division of domestic labor that occurs between genders in many cultures, one must first understand the differences between sex and gender. Sex is biological in nature and gender is sociocultural in nature. One's sex determines one's biological destiny, such as the ability to bear or sire children. Gender, on the other hand, is the psychological, social, cultural, and behavioral characteristics associated with being female or male; gender is a learned characteristic based on one's gender identity and learned gender role. Gender is a society's interpretation of the cultural meaning of one's sex. In fact, some theories posit that we "do” gender, meaning that gender is a social construct that is interpreted by members of a society through the ongoing social interactions that individuals have with each other. Such constructs can easily give rise to gender stereotypes, or culturally defined patterns of expected attitudes and behavior that are considered appropriate for one gender but not the other. Gender stereotypes tend to be simplistic and over-generalized perceptions of one gender or the other and do not take into account the characteristics or aptitudes of the individual. For example, although the traditional gender stereotype for domestic responsibilities might be that women stay home and clean the house and raise the family while men go out and work, the fact that many women in today's society are successful physicians, scientists, lawyers, business owners, and executives (among other jobs traditionally thought to be "male") while many men share in domestic responsibilities or even stay home with the children demonstrates that it is the abilities and aptitudes of the individual — not the individual’s gender or sex — that should prescribe the parameters in which that individual can work.
Despite being social constructs, in some ways, gender roles are biologically based. Physiologically, it is women who must gestate and bear the young of the species. However, it can be argued that biological destiny in many ways ends there, at least when it comes to domestic responsibilities. It is no longer necessary for women to even stay home to nurse an infant. Not only can infants be bottle-fed using formula, women can express breast milk so that the baby continues to get all the immunological benefits of breast feeding without the mother needing to be physically present. Gender does have a biological foundation in the physiological differences between females and males. However, the way that gender is interpreted differs from culture to culture and, in some ways, from individual to individual.
Changing Roles in Developed Societies
Although the historical norms regarding the division of labor between the sexes are similar across cultures, to a great extent these norms are changing in more developed societies. As mentioned above, women are no longer confined by their biology to be physically present with an infant to ensure its survival. Similarly, many of the jobs in industrial and postindustrial societies no longer require the physical strength necessary in hunter-gather societies to go out and literally bring home the bacon. For example, jobs today in information technology require little more physical strength than the ability to sit in front of a computer. In postindustrial societies, success in the job market depends on mental rather than physical skill. Research has repeatedly shown that there is no difference between the sexes in intellectual capacity. As women earn more gender equality in the workplace, they tend to look for more gender equality in the home as well. This attitude affects the division of labor for domestic responsibilities.
Equal Division of Labor in the Home
Although the increasing participation of women in the workplace brings with it a concomitant need in many cases to renegotiate the division of labor within the home, this can be a tricky proposition. Despite the fact that married mothers are increasingly working outside the home, research indicates that wives are still performing many of the domestic responsibilities in the home (Rasmussen, Hawkins, & Schwab, 1996). This phenomenon — sometimes referred to as the "second shift" — can be the source of significant conflict within the home if it is not satisfactorily resolved. Further, research has found that the equal sharing of domestic responsibilities (including both child care and housework) can significantly increase the psychological health of both mothers and fathers.
Difficulties: Male Hang-ups
Coming to the point of equal domestic responsibilities can be a difficult process. First, as discussed above, the traditional division of labor between the sexes has been for men to work outside the home and for women to work inside (including being primarily or totally responsible for both caring for the children and for housework). Since the work of women in the home is typically devalued by many cultures, the adjustment to equally shared domestic tasks is often more difficult for men to make than for women. In many ways, discussions of the division of domestic labor are only the tip of the iceberg and represent deeper attitudes and beliefs held by the wife and husband concerning gender roles and identities in general. For example, although they may be egalitarian in theory, some men find the actual practice of sharing domestic responsibilities to be difficult either to envision or to practice. This...
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