Chapter 4: The Organisation of Households

The division of household labour

Despite a remarkable rise in female labour force participation and a persistent, albeit sluggish, movement towards greater gender equality in society, the changes in women’s economic position did not bring about a real change in the division of housework and care work within the family. While the amount of time women invest in housework has declined in recent decades, the increase in time spent by men on household chores only partially offset this reduction [Ger03] [Col00]. In all industrialised countries, women are still left with the major share of housework and childcare. Even when quantitative differences in the time spouses devote to housework are small, women tend to bear the main responsibility for routine household activities. Routine activities essential to the functioning of the household are typically performed by women, whereas men typically take responsibility for less regular maintenance activities. In conceptualising the division of household labour, then, both the time and responsibility dimensions must be taken into account. Not only is the time devoted to housework by female and male spouses extremely unbalanced, but the performance of household chores remains highly segregated and gender dependent [Orl02]. Only a minority of couples shares responsibility for household tasks [Gol91] [Pre94] [Sti00]. In Hochschild’s [Hoc89] terms, this is the ‘stalled revolution’ which, she argues, results from the lack of institutional arrangements that could ease the life of working parents and balance the demands of work and family.

Recent studies have made some progress in integrating and articulating a number of sociological perspectives on the household division of labour and have included comprehensive data analysis [Bax97] [Bia00] [Col00], but our understanding of this phenomenon and its persistence is still rather rudimentary. At the micro-level, the issue is typically framed in terms of the ‘implicit contract’ between the spouses, which is partially dependent on their personal attributes and labour market activities. On a broader level, the gender division of labour is addressed in terms of the societal factors that influence the organisation of the household. These include the relationship between family, market and state, as well as cultural norms. The latter concern is best addressed by means of comparative analysis that permits the examination of structural factors associated with different patterns of household organisation.

In line with the theme of this course, the current chapter addresses the role of social institutions in influencing the household division of labour. Our aim is to investigate the extent to which different institutional arrangements associated with various ‘regime’ types are related to country variations in the division of household labour and the amount of time allocated to unpaid work by men and women. Furthermore, we are interested in the ways in which the relationship between spouses’ attributes and the characteristics of the household are moderated by the institutional context as captured by the regime typology.

Before addressing the comparative issues, however, we turn to a short review of the central themes that have emerged in the theoretical literature on the micro-level correlates of the gendered division of household labour. It is these relationships that one can then examine in different social contexts in order to evaluate the ways in which systemic characteristics impinge on the organisation of families.

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