Family roles and gender structuration

In contrast to the exchange/dependency-perspective and its derivatives that are generally conceptualised as (gender-neutral) micro-decisions, the second class of arguments can be defined as the gender structuration proposition. Better known as ‘doing gender’, this proposition suggests that social differences between women and men are constructed by means of ‘… a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional and micropolitical activities …’ (West & Zimmerman, 1987: 126). Once constructed, they are used to reinforce gender differences. Hence, the performance of daily activities in the household and the emergent division of labour reproduces gender as a social category and reinforces male and female roles, identities and attitudes. The division of household labour, then, is not only about productivity but also about the ‘production’ of gender and gender relations through ‘everyday performance’ [Bat02] [Gre00]. Indeed, a study by Bittman and colleagues [Bit03] found that Australian women who are less dependent upon their husbands actually devoted relatively longer hours to housework compared with women who were more economically dependent on their spouses in order to compensate for their gender-role deviance (Bittman et. al 2003: 207). The authors interpreted these findings as empirical support for the ‘gender role’ hypothesis which posits that the division of household labour is not merely a negotiated social arrangement that balances the market and family inputs of the spouses. Instead, the household division of labour is constitutive in that it structures (or reinforces) gender categories at the same time that household goods and services are being produced.

With changing patterns of employment and family formation, the traditional model has given way to a variety of alternatives, and some researchers have predicted growing individualisation whereby the male and female roles become ‘de-complementary’ [Bur94] and the family shifts from ‘a community of need’ to ‘an elective relationship’ [Bec02]. In other words, as women’s participation in paid employment becomes universal, and as households become more dependent on dual earners, gender roles become less distinct. We believe that the blurring of gender roles in the economic sphere also contributes to the blurring of the traditional division of responsibilities within the household.

To the extent, then, that the household remains a locus of gender production, we might expect that the gender division of household labour would not be fully accounted for by resource-dependence relations or by time constraints. Culturally ingrained gender distinctions are most likely to materialise in the division of responsibility for household chores rather than in the time spent on housework. Furthermore, such gender distinctions should be related to more general gender attitudes held by the spouses. Indeed, Blair and Lichter [Bla91] found that when spouses held more egalitarian attitudes, the household was characterised by lower family work segregation, and Greenstein [Gre00] reported that husbands’ contribution to domestic labour was affected by the interaction of both spouses’ gender ideologies.

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