Societal context of family arrangements

Comparative studies that have investigated differences between countries in the division of housework have emphasised the role of institutional arrangements and cultural factors in affecting intra-household processes [Kal90] [Cal91] [Bax97] [Eve04] [Ger03] [Bat02] [Dav04] [Lew06]. These studies varied with regard to the list of (industrialised) countries they included and the data sources they utilised. Their main findings can be summarised as follows: (a) In all countries, gender is an important determinant of the household division of labour, as women perform the lion’s share of housework. (b) Countries differ in the amount of time invested in housework by both women and men, and in the extent of gender segregation of household chores. In some countries, equality is greater because women allocate less time to housework (while men’s contribution is similarly low). In other countries, men participate more in unpaid work than in other countries. (c) Different factors may affect the division of labour and the contribution of each spouse to housework in different countries. For example, cultural factors, especially those related to gender ideology, may mediate the effects of time constraints or resource dependence on the division of housework [Bit03].

Several arguments were put forward in order to explain differences between countries in the patterns of time allocation to unpaid work. In one of the first comparative studies on the issue of unpaid work, Kalleberg and Rosenfeld [Kal90] stated that ‘Cross-national research is necessary to examine how variation in institutional structures, policies, and cultural values affects the division of labour between men and women in the family and in the labour market’ (p. 332). One of the most commonly mentioned institutional factors is the countries’ welfare regime or, more specifically, the level of family-supportive policies [Kal90] [Ger03] [Bax97] [Eve04] [Fuw04].

Theoretical models of the household division of labour suggest that labour market policies that support women’s employment and improve their market position should promote equality within the household. This expectation is based on the premise that such policies give married women access to independent economic resources, which, in turn, grant them power to negotiate household relations. Several researchers have largely attributed country variation in the division of household labour to the level of support for working mothers (for example, [Bax97] [Cal91] [Ger03]. In general, family policies (such as maternity leave plans and subsidised childcare arrangements) are expected to improve women’s position by allowing them to combine family duties with market involvement. However, they may at the same time preserve the gendered division of labour precisely by making it possible for women to coordinate family and market activities.

It is important to note that men, who are still perceived as, and expected to be, the main providers, are often constrained by their employment contracts and have limited flexibility in contributing to housework. Family-supportive policies seldom target men’s involvement in family work or their role as parents (except for a few paternity leave programmes), and it is thus not clear whether, by affecting women’s economic activity, policies also influence the behaviour of women and men within the family. However, the general view is that policies, and especially those which directly affect women’s employment such as the availability of childcare facilities, maternity leave and child allowances, affect women’s time allocation to paid and unpaid work and consequently structure the relationship between work and family.

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