Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Meaning and Measurement: Reconceptualizing Measures of the Division of Household Labor

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Meaning and Measurement: Reconceptualizing Measures of the Division of Household Labor

Article excerpt

This article argues that task-specific measures of

the division of household labor form a gender hier

archy that reflects dimensions of meaning in the

organization of household work. We contrast these

measures to the commonly used time-share and

Likert scale measures, which assume all tasks are

interchangeable. Using Guttman scaling, we test

the unidimensionality of this task hierarchy. Using

odds ratios, we measure relationships between spe

cific tasks, and using logistic regression, we see

differences in correlates of husbands' participation

by task and interrelationships among tasks that

persist, controlling for gender ideology and socio

economic factors. This work should encourage de

velopment of measures of change in the segrega

tion of household tasks by gender.

Many studies have found that women, even when employed, remain responsible for housework (Eng

land & Farkas, 1986; Lennon & Rosenfield, 1994). The actual division of housework by gender has been less clearly conceptualized and measured (Blair & Lichter, 1991). Even though researchers no longer assume that all housework is "women's work" by definition, the possibility that specific tasks might change gender assignment-the way specific occupations have done-is not explicitly addressed in the literature. Investigating the gender meanings of specific tasks has largely been left to qualitative research (DeVault, 1991; Hochschild, 1989).

We suggest several different quantitative approaches to measuring the similarity and differences in household tasks, and we show that the factors that explain husbands' participation differ, depending on the task. We argue that such measures of task hierarchy can complement qualitative research by improving our understanding of both where and why change already is occurring and what task-specific resistances and obstacles to greater participation by husbands exist. Our argument is grounded in the literatures of the gender perspective and occupational sex segregation.


In the past decade, the literature on the division of household labor has increasingly become guided by the awareness that gender itself plays an important role. Previous work has clearly established that despite entry into the labor force in increasing proportions, wives remain disproportionately responsible for household maintenance (Baxter, 1992; Blair & Johnson, 1992; Ross, 1987; Shelton & John, 1993). Moreover, gender-neutral, resourcebased approaches, although important, are not sufficient to explain the unequal division of labor (Ferree, 1990; Thompson & Walker, 1989).

The gender perspective offers one explanation for the continuing lopsided division of household labor. From this perspective, performing housework certainly produces material results such as clean clothes and hot meals, but the gendered division of household labor also produces proper gender relations (e.g., Blain, 1994; DeVault, 1991; Fenstermaker Berk, 1985; South & Spitze, 1994) and social identities (Fraser, 1989). Researchers in this perspective argue that all work, including work done at home without pay, is "dual aspect activity" (Fraser) and takes on symbolic meaning, part of which is gendered meaning. From this perspective, both labor-market work and household work are divided less from considerations of skill, time, or talent, than from efforts to establish boundaries between men's and women's work. Such boundaries affirm and reproduce masculinity and femininity, and doing the sort of work defined as inappropriate for one's gender produces demands for accountability or justifications for why such a transgression of normative expectations is warranted (Gerson & Peiss, 1985; West & Zimmerman, 1987).

On the one hand, gender boundaries such as those that structure the paid labor market are constructed, in part, through the labeling of specific skills and interests as appropriate for men or for women (Acker, 1990; Reskin, 1993; West & Zimmerman, 1987). …

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