Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Importance of Power Relations for the Division of Household Labour

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Importance of Power Relations for the Division of Household Labour

Article excerpt

* Address all correspondence to Lorraine Davies, Department of Sociology, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 5C2, e-mail: We are grateful to Chloe Bird, Donna D. McAlpine, Julie A. McMullin and Clint Wilson for their comments on this paper

Abstract: This article examines the division of housework in dual-earner households. We hypothesize that power relations affect the amount of household work that is performed by women and men. We find that paid work hours, sex composition of one's occupation, and decision-making power predict one's contribution to housework. Results differ depending upon whether wives or husbands, male- or female-tasks are examined. Findings are interpreted within a framework that recognizes that power relations are implicated in the gendered nature of social life, at both the structural and individual levels of society.

Resume: Cet article etudie la division des travaux domestiques dans les foyers de couples bi-actifs. Nous formulons l'hypothese suivante: les relations de puissance influencent la quantite de travaux domestiques entreprise soit par la femme ou par l'homme. Nous concluons que les heures de travail remunerees, la composition sexuelle du metier et le pouvoir decisionnel d'un ou l'autre partenaire predisent leur contribution aux travaux domestiques. Les resultats different dependant si nous analysons le mari ou la femme, et les taches traditionnellement accomplies soit par l'homme, soit par la femme. Les resultats sont interpretes dans un cadre qui reconnait l'implication des relations de puissance touchant l'ensemble societal homme-femme autant au niveau de la composition qu'au niveau individuel de la societe.

Decisions about who does what within the privacy of one's home are not simply logical manifestations of particular household needs, but rather reflect, and reinforce, the much broader organization of society around assumptions of gender. Doing housework and childcare is more an indication of beliefs about what women and men "should do" than it is about their actual capabilities (Oakley, 1974; Berk, 1985; West and Zimmerman, 1987). Yet, the gendered nature of domestic work is generally rationalized as "natural" and therefore "inevitable". This serves to deflect attention away from broader institutional inequities and the connections that exist between the disadvantaged status of women within and outside of the home. Such inattention to the connections between micro and macro levels of social life limits our understanding of the division of household labour, particularly as it manifests itself as a system of gender relations that silently disadvantages women in their access to power relative to men (1). The challenge remains for researchers concerned with understanding the division of housework at the individual level to more fully explore the intersections among structured inequities and their consequences for women's and men's lives.

Although the increase in labour force participation of women in past decades points to a lessening of constraints on women's lives, their continued responsibility for domestic tasks defies the notion that gender inequality itself is being eliminated. Wives, regardless of employment status, consistently perform twice as much housework as their spouses (Lennon and Rosenfield, 1994), a finding that has changed only a little over time (Brines, 1994; Shelton, 1992). Most investigations into this finding attempt to explain the amount or the proportion of work performed by each spouse, but none adequately account for the difference between wives' and husbands' contributions. In this paper, we argue that theoretical frameworks would benefit from more attention to the issue of power at both the structural and individual levels, and that it is as important to examine variations in housework among wives and among husbands, as it is to examine gender differences alone.

Power, Structure and the Division of Household Labour

The ways in which gender relations reflect and create power imbalances within marriage are complex. …

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