The Gendered Domestic Division of Labor

One of the main reasons men benefit from marriage is the unequal and taken-for-granted division of domestic labor. Research shows that women historically have shouldered the overwhelming bulk of responsibility for doing household labor, spending three times the amount of time as men doing routine everyday household tasks (for a review, see Coltrane, 2000 [see bottom for the full references]). Moreover, even though in recent decades women have increasingly entered the paid labor force and share, more than ever, the burden of providing financially for the family, men continue to do significantly less than their equal share of housework, claiming disinterest, disinclination, or general lack of aptitude (Deutsch, 1999). Along this line, doing household labor has been equated with doing gender; women do it and men don’t, and disruptions in this pattern can be threatening to a family’s gender order.

Image result for jocelyn brando big heat

Proving that housework is not inherently gendered, studies show that men do more housework before they are married than they do after. Once married, however, they have the opportunity to denote most domestic chores as “women’s work” and turn them over to their (less powerful) wives. Research does show that overall, American men have begun to do a greater share of housework in recent decades, although much of this gain is the result of women doing less (Robinson & Godbey, 1999). In general, married men tend to create the need for more housework than they perform (Coltrane, 2000). Although some social scientists had the relatively slight increase in men’s housework performance as highly significant, others suggest that this small change “should be better understood in terms of a largely successful male resistance” (McMahon, 1999, p. 7). Why are men resisting? The short (and short-term) answer is that it is in men’s interest to do so (Goode, 1992; McMahon, 1999), because it reinforces a separation of spheres that underpins masculine ideals and perpetuates a gender order privileging (some) men over women and over (some) other men. On the whole, we raise boys to expect mothers to wait on them and nurture them, and we raise girls to help their mothers perform the endless family work that is necessary for maintaining homes and raising children. It is no surprise that after being propelled away from families for a time, most young men come back to family life with a sense of masculine entitlement, expecting to be served by women and not noticing the myriad details of family life that demand someone’s attention (Pyke & Coltrane, 1996).

Although family living has been found to be a protective factor for men with respect to some risky behaviors (Nock, 1998), attempting to live up to masculine ideals can put men at risk inside families as well as outside them. The psychological and emotional energy exerted to be in control, unemotional, independent, and uninvolved affects men’s relations with their wives and children, as well as having deleterious medical consequences for the men themselves (Sabo, 1998). One of the most consistent problems identified by women with respect to marriage is their husbands’ lack of communication and emotional expression (Coltrane, 1998; L. B. Rubin, 1983). This gender-stereotyped division of emotional labor even pervades men’s friendships with women: One woman in L. B. Rubin’s (1985) study of friendship comments, “I have one man friend I love very much, but I don’t relate to him like I do to a woman. I can’t to him the same way, and when I try, I’m disappointed. Either we’re talking about him and his problems and I’m sort of like a mother or big sister, or it’s all so heady and intellectualized that it’s boring” (p. 160). Finally, men’s relationships with their children suffer to the extent that they adopt emotionally remote and inexpressive styles of masculinity. A typical response to an emotionally absent father comes from one 17-year-old, interviewed by clinical psychologist William Pollack: “[M]y father is like his own father. He’s not very communicative. I don’t care if he coaches my soccer team for nine years in a row; I would rather he just talked to me once in a while” (Pollack, 2000, p. 238).

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The shortcomings of men in families are not limited to inattention or emotional remoteness. Aided by governmental neglect and protected by the privacy of their homes, men have long been expected to “keep women and children in their place” with the threat and use of physical force; moreover, to the extent that this expectation is normalized as a symbol of masculinity, violence and the threat of violence became one and the same (see Hearn, 1990). In the United States alone, estimates range up to 4 million women per year who are physically abused by their male partners (Greenfeld et al., 1998). Far too many women and children will continue to be the victims of domestic terror; as Kaufman (1993) noted, “all women, directly or indirectly, experience at least the potential of domination, violence, coercion and harassment at the hands of man” (p. 44).”

Adams, Michele and Scott Coltrane. 2005. “Boys and Men in Families: The Domestic Production of Gender, Power, and Privilege.” Pp. 230-248 in Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities, edited by M. S. Kimmel, J. Hearn, and R. W. Connell. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [This excerpt from the section titled “The Gendered Domestic Division of Labor,” pp. 240-241. References below, links and pictures here not in original.]

Coltrane, S. (1998). Gender and families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Coltrane, S. (2000). Research on household labor: Modeling and measuring the social embeddedness of routine family work. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1208-1233.

Deutsch, F. M. (1999). Halving it all: How equally shared parenting works. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [Review in Gender & Society (Journal) here.]

Goode, W. (1992). Why men resist. In B. Thorne & M. Yalon (Eds.), Rethinking the family: Some feminist questions (Rev. ed., pp. 287-310). Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Greenfeld, L. A., Rand, M. R., Craven, D., Klaus, P. A., Perkins, C. A., Ringel, C., et al. (1998). Violence by intimates: Analysis of data on crimes by current or former spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from

Hearn, J. (1990). “Child abuse” and men’s violence. In The Violence Against Children Study Group, Taking child abuse seriously: Contemporary issues in child protection theory and practice (pp. 63-85). London: Unwin Hyman.

Kaufman, M. (1993). Cracking the armour: Power, pain and the lives of men. Toronto: Viking.

McMahon, A. (1999). Taking care of men: Sexual politics in the public mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nock, S. L. (1998). Marriage in men’s life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pollack, W. S., with Shuster, T. (2000). Real boys’ voices. New York: Random House. [Another excerpt here. Review here.]

Pyke, K., & Coltrane, S. (1996). Entitlement, obligation, and gratitude in family work. Journal of Family Issues, 17(1), 60-82. [Direct link that downloads the .pdf here.]

Robinson, J. P., & Godbey, G. (1999). Time for life: The surprising ways Americans use their time (2nd ed.). University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Rubin, L. B. (1983). Intimate strangers: Men and women together. New York: Harper & Row. [A blog post regarding this book written by Janis A. Prince Inniss, assistant professor at Saint Leo University, can be found here. ]

Rubin, L. B. (1985). Just friends: The role of friendship in our lives. New York: Harper & Row.

Sabo, D. (1998). Masculinities and men’s health: Moving toward post-Superman era prevention. In M. S. Kimmel & M. A. Messner (Eds.), Men’s lives (4th ed, pp. 347-361). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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