Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Diversity but Not Equality: Domestic Labour in Cohabiting Relationships

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Diversity but Not Equality: Domestic Labour in Cohabiting Relationships

Article excerpt

This paper examines the domestic labour arrangements of cohabiting couples and the implications for gender equality. The discussion is based on a predominantly qualitative study of thirty young cohabiters. The men and women shared domestic labour in diverse ways but not equally, instead they used discursive strategies to avoid assessing whether their contributions were equal. The cohabiters expressed extremely egalitarian attitudes when asked general questions about society but equality is absent when they discuss their own relationships. I argue that the concept of equality is part of public discourse rather than a fundamental principle of cohabiting relationships.


Living together relationships are a rapidly increasing and major new form of domestic organisation. From being regarded as seriously deviant in the 1950s unmarried heterosexual cohabitation is now a majority experience (McDonald 1996). The number of cohabiting couples in Australia doubled in the decade between the early 1980s and 1990s (ABS 1994). Although cohabiting couples make up approximately nine percent of couples in Australia at any one time it is estimated that almost half of those below age 40 will cohabit at some stage in their life (ABS 1998a; Glezer 1991). The number of couples who cohabit before they marry continues to rise. By 1997 over 60% of couples getting married had previously cohabited (ABS 1998b). An analysis of domestic labour is crucial to understanding current gender relations in this new household form.

Domestic Labour in Marriage

Theory and research on domestic labour in marriage confirms that despite the second wave of feminism and the large numbers of women moving into the paid labour market, housework remains women's work. Women continue to take responsibility for domestic labour and continue to do most of it (Baxter et al. 1990; Bittman 1992; Harper & Richards 1986, Hochschild 1989). Domestic labour involves both production and consumption but it also has an emotional component. Women do housework as an expression of care for partners and children (Finch & Groves 1983; Delphy & Leonard 1992) or to avoid conflict which may threaten their relationships (Hochschild 1989).

Attempts have been made to conceptualise housework with exchange theory and from a resource-power perspective but `gender' remains the strongest predictor of how domestic labour will be divided (South and Spitze 1994). Materialist feminists have argued that women and men are social classes which occupy opposing structural positions in the domestic mode of production (Delphy and Leonard 1992). From this perspective marriage and cohabitation are identical labour relationships where the woman exchanges her labour for financial maintenance from the man (Delphy and Leonard 1992, p265). In contrast the `gender perspective' theory takes a more dynamic view and argues that housework produces gender through an everyday enactment of dominance and submission and other gendered behaviours (Berk 1985, South and Spitze 1994).

Quantitative research has shown that living with a male partner increases women's unpaid work and decreases their paid work time, whether or not they have dependent children (Bittman 1992, p. 3). (Unfortunately married couples and cohabiting couples were not differentiated in this research.) Overall, in couples without children, women do six times as much cleaning as men (Bittman 1992, p. 41). Two types of gender segregation become more marked among married or cohabiting couples than among singles. There is a segregation between `breadwinner' and `homemaker' roles and there is a segregation of unpaid labour into feminine (indoor) tasks and masculine (outdoor) tasks (Bittman 1992, Baxter and Western 1998).

Couples make sense of unequal contributions to domestic labour in a number of ways. Research has documented how men and women minimise their unequal contributions by arguing that the partner who does more has higher standards or is more available to do domestic labour; through emphasising mutual participation; or by trivialising housework and seeing it as unimportant (Bittman and Lovejoy 1993, Bittman and Pixely 1997, Brannen and Moss 1991, Hochschild 1989). …

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