Paid and Unpaid Work in Australian Households: Trends in the Gender Division of Labour, 1986-2005

By Chesters, Jenny; Baxter, Janeen et al. | Australian Journal of Labour Economics, March 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Paid and Unpaid Work in Australian Households: Trends in the Gender Division of Labour, 1986-2005


Chesters, Jenny, Baxter, Janeen, Western, Mark, Australian Journal of Labour Economics


Abstract

Changes in labour force participation rates of men and women over the last three decades raise questions about how men and women manage the combined responsibilities of paid and unpaid work. In the majority of couple families both partners are now engaged in paid employment highlighting the necessity to consider both paid and unpaid work when examining household divisions of labour. In this study, we use data collected in three national Australian surveys in 1986, 1993 and 2005 to examine the combined paid and unpaid workloads of men and women in dual-earner families. We find that the gender gap in men's and women's combined workloads has narrowed with men and women having similar loads when both are employed full-time. But this pattern does not hold for households with dependent children. We conclude that parenthood is a constraint on equality in the division of labour within Australian households.

1. Introduction

The prevalence of the 'traditional' male breadwinner family with a single male earner and a non-employed female partner has steadily declined due to an increase in the labour force participation rate of married women. The labour force participation rate of married women in Australia increased from 35 per cent to 56 per cent between 1972 and 2004 (ABS, 1976, p. 43; and ABS, 2006, p. 124). Consequently, the proportion of couple families with both partners employed has increased. The proportion of Australian families with dependent children where both parents are in paid employment increased from 46 per cent in 1985 to 60 per cent in 2007 (ABS, 1996; and ABS, 2008a).

Given these trends it is timely to consider the workloads of Australian men and women in couple families to assess whether gender specialisation in paid and unpaid work has declined and whether there is any evidence of increasing gender equality in overall work time. Earlier research has reported mixed evidence about these trends. On the one hand, Baxter (2002) reported that although women had reduced their hours of domestic labour over time, there was little evidence of a marked change in men's involvement in domestic work. On the other hand, research conducted in the US has found that men are doing more in the home than in the past suggesting that overall workloads have become more equal (Bianchi et al., 2006; and Sayer, 2005).

Although there has been a great deal of research examining the division of labour within couple families, there is continuing debate regarding the salience of different explanations of why women spend more time on housework than men. The various theories developed to explain the allocation of labour within households have been well-canvassed in previous literature and it is not necessary to review these arguments in detail here (see, for example, Baxter, 1993). Briefly, however, some researchers argue that time spent on housework is inversely related to time spent on paid work with the partner spending the least time in paid employment spending the most time on housework (Blood and Wolfe, 1960). Becker (1981) argued that the division of labour into paid work for men and unpaid work for women was a rational choice based on sound economic principles. According to Becker's argument, men had a comparative advantage in the labour market due to their higher levels of human capital and women had a comparative advantage in the home due to their biology. Therefore, the gender division of labour was the most efficient way to utilise the resources of both partners. However, now that women are increasingly likely to remain employed throughout their child bearing and child rearing years, this specialisation of labour is no longer so widespread (Brynin and Ermisch, 2009). According to Brynin and Ermisch (2009, p. 17) due to women's increased education and earning power, the returns of work exceed the marginal value of home production making it less efficient for women to withdraw from the labour market to specialise in care and housework. …

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