A Really Good Husband: Work/life Balance, Gender Equity and Social Change

By Connell, R. W. | Australian Journal of Social Issues, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

A Really Good Husband: Work/life Balance, Gender Equity and Social Change


Connell, R. W., Australian Journal of Social Issues


In contemporary developed countries there is still massive gender imbalance in domestic labour. Aggregate and individual change has occurred over the decades, but less than was expected, and change in men's domestic work has practically stalled (Dempsey 1997, Baxter 2002). There is a stony inevitability about women's greater load of housework and childcare, that makes a striking contrast with the public world of 'equal citizenship' and market 'choice'. Women appear to have choices, and work/life balance policies are supposed to increase their options. But some options are hardly ever taken.

'Work/life balance' is now a live theme in social policy, generating considerable public debate, research and policy innovation (Pocock 2003). In this paper I explore particularly its links with issues of gender justice. In the first section I ground the approach in a historical view of gender relations. This perspective indicates a need for situated studies of work/life balancing, which I attempt in the second part of the paper. In the third section I discuss the implications of work/life-balance research for gender equity strategies.

The notion of 'gender justice' is itself complex and contested; I don't propose to explore the definition in depth, but a preliminary comment may be useful. Any concept of social justice involves a generalized appeal to equality as the criterion of fairness. However the realization of fairness in gender relations is specific; gender is only one sphere in what Walzer (1983) called 'complex equality'. Within this sphere, equality, may be achieved by reducing difference (e.g. admitting women to higher education), but there are strong forces acting against a broad de-gendering of society. Gender justice therefore often involves a search for equivalences, i.e. equity in the context of respect for difference (Young 1990), and for balances of benefits and costs. At the same time, the search for gender justice involves a critique of false equivalences, i.e. unequal exchanges defended in the name of gender difference, and a critique of institutions and cultural forces that impersonally deliver unequal outcomes. As will be seen, these issues are particularly relevant to questions of work/life balance.

The work/home division as a historical event

Where does the gender imbalance in domestic labour come from? Gender relations, it is now accepted in all serious scholarship (with the sad exception of 'evolutionary psychology'), are historically constructed. Both definitions of gender and patterns of gender interaction change in profound ways over long periods of time (Miller 1998, Connell 2002).

The contemporary division between 'work' and 'home' is the product of quite recent changes, and its creation is well documented. Davidoff and Hall (1987: 357-369), in their classic study of the English middle class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, show that creating the division involved both segregation of space within buildings, and the invention of specialized buildings which were either homes or workplaces. These physical changes were connected with an agenda of moral reform that created domesticity as an ideal of life. Wall (1994) traced the same process in New York City, and found that the physical separation of domestic site from work site occurred around 1810, for the city's merchant elite, and around 1840, for the city's artisans. Here too it involved a profound shift in ideology; the emerging model of 'separate spheres' for women and men.

The work/home division is therefore an event, whose consequences are still reverberating. The structure created in the metropolitan middle classes was exported, in a conflict-ridden process, in two directions. One was to the working class of metropolitan and settler-colonial societies (Rose 1992, Gilding 1991). Working-class leaderships adopted the ideology, of domesticity, and, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, accepted institutionalized wage inequality between women and men in the form of the 'family wage'. …

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