Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Patterns of Change and Stability in the Gender Division of Household Labour in Australia, 1986-1997

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Patterns of Change and Stability in the Gender Division of Household Labour in Australia, 1986-1997

Article excerpt


Feminist reformers in the 1960s and 1970s were optimistic that changes in the labour force participation rates for married women, in combination with increased awareness of the value of women's unpaid work in the home, would lead to an increased involvement of men in domestic labour and a more equal domestic division of labour between men and women (Oakley, 1974a, 1974b; Malos, 1980; Gavron, 1983). To a large extent, this has not happened. It is generally undisputed that women do approximately three quarters of household work, a pattern that is evident across all western nations (Szalai, 1972; Berk, 1985; Baxter, 1997). At the same time, though, there is debate about whether the amount of time that men and women spend on domestic labour has changed over time (Gershuny and Robinson, 1988; Shelton, 1992; Bittman, 1995; Bianchi et al., 2000; Sullivan, 2000). The results of the research are far from clear-cut. Most research tends to suggest that women's hours on housework are declining, but there are mixed views about whether men's hours on housework have changed. Some research has found that men's housework contribution has increased (Gershuny and Robinson, 1988; Robinson and Godbey, 1997; Bianchi et al., 2000; Sullivan, 2000), while others have found virtually no change in men's contribution (Shelton, 1992; Bittman, 1995).

The impetus for the debate stems from other social changes thought to impact upon the way men and women organize their household responsibilities. These include the increased participation of married women in paid employment, a much smaller but nevertheless significant decline in men's labour force participation rates, the decline in fertility levels, the delay in entering a marital relationship, increased rates of de facto cohabitation, and increasing divorce rates. In other words, the expectation has been that changes in patterns of family formation and dissolution, in conjunction with the changing gender distribution of paid work, would lead to changes in the distribution of work between men and women in the home. But it is unclear to what extent this has occurred.

This article investigates these issues by examining men's and women's participation in housework in Australia using repeated national cross-sectional data from 1986, 1993 and 1997. The aim is to examine change over time in men's and women's levels of participation in childcare and housework. Additionally, the article takes previous analyses one step further by examining the way in which the factors determining men's and women's levels of involvement in domestic labour may have changed over time. Australia has seen major changes in the labour force participation rates of married women, patterns of family formation and dissolution, changes in women's levels of economic independence and men's and women's attitudes to gender and family roles. But we know little about how these changes have impacted on the household division of labour. (1) For example, is the relationship between paid and unpaid work changing for married women as they move into paid work in larger numbers and increasingly maintain involvement in the labour market throughout their life course? Are we witnessing increasing similarity in the links between paid and unpaid work for men and women as women's patterns of participation in paid work become more like men's?

Explaining household labour

Two kinds of models dominate attempts to explain the allocation of household labour. (2) On the one hand is the economic exchange model that argues that women perform housework in exchange for economic support (Walby, 1986; Brines, 1994). Under this model, the allocation of labour in the household is seen as fundamentally economic and rational. Men provide income for the household and, in exchange, women perform unpaid domestic labour. The expectation is that as women's time in paid labour increases and as their contribution to the household income increases, the division of labour in the home will become more equal. …

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