Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Housework in Canada: The National Picture

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Housework in Canada: The National Picture

Article excerpt

Recent survey research indicates that women are still overwhelmingly responsible for, and primarily carry out, the chief household chores (Coverman and Sheley, 1986; Berardo et al., 1987; Michelson, 1988). Most importantly, there appears to be little significant increase in the amount of domestic labour performed by men when their wives take on a second job ( i. e., full-time paid work outside the home). Canadian local studies in Vancouver (Meissner et al., 1975), Halifax (Harvey and Clarke, 1975), Toronto (Michelson, 1985), Quebec (Bourdais et al., 1987), and Flin Flon (Luxton, 1980; Luxton and Rosenberg, 1986) support these conclusions.

There is, however, no national Canadian research to substantiate these findings. This is a surprising shortcoming, given the persistent conclusion among contributors to the domestic labour debate that there is a great need for empirical research (Fox, 1986: 188; Seccombe, 1986: 207; Armstrong and Armstrong, 1990: 33). In an attempt to contribute to the ongoing debate, this paper provides a multivariate analysis of housework and evaluates its major determinant in the Canadian national setting.


Aside from the importance of capitalism and patriarchy in the institutionalization of gender specific task allocations (see Molyneux, 1979; Fox, 1980; Hamilton and Barrett, 1986; Armstrong and Armstrong, 1990), most theorists agree that the organization of domestic life is a negotiated process between household occupants (Coverman, 1989: 356). There is, however, little agreement as to whether this process is power-based or a free choice.

The best-known sociological theory which is concerned with the conjugal power as an explanation of housework performance is that of Wolfe (1959), Blood and Wolfe (1960: 48, 73-4) and Spitze (1986: 691). This theory views power and resources such as income as instrumental in the family structure whereby those members with more income or power are better able to exercise their wills, or to achieve desired goals or outcomes. Davidoff (1976: 124), likewise, argues that the performance of housekeeping and housework are a means of maintaining order and predictability in the immediate environment thus making meaningful patterns of activity, people and material. Cleaning, for example, entails the separation of wanted from unwanted, desirable from undesirable, and is therefore a way of making the environment conform to cultural standards. Those who are powerful, however, can enforce and maintain this order by delegating it to the less powerful. Thus, the resource/power theory suggests that housework is generally undesirable and those with more resources confer power and negotiate or impose household tasks on the powerless. Empirical research has supported this hypothesis (see, Bane, 1976; Clark et al., 1978; Nicols and Metzen, 1978; Ericksen, et al., 1979; Vanek, 1980; Model, 1982; Bird et al., 1984; Spitze, 1986; Bourdais et al., 1987; but see, Farkas, 1976; Robinson, 1977; Herdesty and Bokemeir, 1989: 263). For example, Ericksen et al. (1979) show a negative relationship between men's income and their hours of housework performance. Similarly, Nicols and Metzen (1978) show that as wives' incomes increase, the number of hours they spend on housework decrease, and that the husbands' housework increases.

The New Home Economics, or Chicago School, builds on the resource/power theory but sees the household operation as based on free choice. It suggests that the household unit seeks to maximize the aggregate utility of the occupants' labour power in the house and in the market by deciding which commodities to produce in the house and which to purchase from the market. Since women often earn less for the same work as men, this thesis argues that households can maximize utility by adopting a gendered division of labour. This places wives at home doing domestic work while their husbands are involved in the paid work force (Becker, 1974). The traditional sexual division of labour is thus seen as a rational decision made by households which wish to maximize utility (see also Becker, 1976, 1981). …

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