2 Taster materials

Extract one from Y157 Understanding society

Extract one

Y157 uses three themes to help organise its study of society. These are change, diversity, and connectedness. Change allows us to look at how and why things change over time; diversity focuses on the differences and similarities between people and groups; connectedness looks at the ways people and countries are becoming less remote from each other.

The first extract is about the theme of change and in particular change in family life. The extract is taken from Chapter 2 in the Y157 course book. It focuses on the continuing changes in how men and women share work in the home. Read through the text and then try the activity which follows.

2.3 Is work in the home shared today?

Our story so far has taken us up to the 1950s. We now want to bring the story up to date. How has work in the home changed in the last fifty or so years? Do men and women share tasks more equally? If this has happened, why has it happened?

2.3.1 Changes in women's employment patterns

During the 1960s and 70s there was a significant increase in the proportion of women who worked in paid employment outside the home. A pattern was becoming established whereby married women would work in this way until the birth of their first child and then return to work part-time when not occupied full-time with childcare. There were a number of explanations for this. These included the expanding economy and the need for more workers; increases in educational opportunities for girls; and the re-emergence of feminism as, along with other disadvantaged or marginalized groups, women were becoming more powerful and gained a voice. All these factors are interrelated, though different social scientists will emphasise one kind of explanation rather than another.

During the latter part of the 20th century the numbers of women working outside the home increased further. In 2002 female employment was at a record high level of 12.9 million and the working age employment rate for women was also at its highest ever level. Of all countries in the EU the UK has the third highest female employment rate.

2.3.2 How have these changes affected the division of labour within families?

What have been the implications of these changes for a woman's role as housewife? Has she continued to do most of the work in the home or has it become more shared between men and women?

For a while, particularly during the 1960s and 70s, there did seem to be some indications that families might be becoming more egalitarian i.e. that as more women worked outside the home, husbands would increase the amount of domestic work they undertook. A particularly influential study at that time was Young and Willmott's The symmetrical family’ (1973) in which they argued that the middle classes in particular were leading a trend towards a more egalitarian ‘symmetrical’ marriage relationship in which husband and wife shared tasks more equally.

However, evidence also emerged during the latter part of the 20th century that perhaps changes had not been as great as was originally assumed. According to one review of the evidence ‘none of the data seems to warrant any suggestion that the traditional female responsibility for household work has been substantially eroded, or that male participation has significantly increased’ (Morris, 1990 p. 120). Women it seemed had a dual role, juggling paid employment and work in the home.

So studies from the second half of the 20th century told two different stories. On the one hand housework was becoming more equally shared. On the other women still did most of it whilst at the same time working outside the home. Almost certainly some of you reading this will want to support the argument that change has occurred. Maybe it is part of your own experience that men today do a lot more in the home that their father's generation did.

Equally, some of you may feel that the argument that there has been no change better reflects your own experiences. So how are we to make sense of these different conclusions? And what does the evidence tell us now in the twenty first century? The extract below provides us with more recent evidence. It also provides the tools for thinking about why our experiences might be different.

Activity 4

Read the extract below, which is a summary of an extensive research document. It is a short extract but in fact contains a lot of different ideas which can make it quite difficult to ‘digest’. So when you have read it once, return to it and try to summarise it in a few sentences.

Working up a sweat

Ivor Gaber on the division of housework … and the wage gap between the genders.

Who works harder, men or women? In a marriage or partnership, the answer is that it all depends on the employment circumstances of the couple, their ages and beliefs they have about their appropriate roles within a household.

Researcher Xavier Ramos, from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, has been looking at the division of work between men and women in British households. What he has found is that when it comes to housework, on average women do almost four times as much as their partners – men averaging five and a half hours a week, compared with women's 19.

Where both partners are in employment they end up working (paid and unpaid) almost the same amount of time – 50 hours a week – but with men spending more time in paid work and women spending more time working in the home. However, if the woman is in part-time employment, and the man is working full time, she has a much higher total workload than her male partner- 13 hours more, most of it housework.

The findings are based on the British household panel survey – a long-term survey of some 5,500 households and 10,300 individuals. Ramos, who presented his research at a recent conference organised by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, suggests that, despite his overall conclusions, the differences between the amount of time men and women spend in domestic and paid work are narrowing. And this is attributable mainly to the changing behaviour of women.

For men, he found, the amount of time spent doing housework and paid work remained fairly constant throughout the 1990's. But for women, total work time decreased, reflecting a reduction in the time they now spend doing household chores – a reduction that has outweighed any increase in the time they spend in paid work.

The way household chores are divided between partners appears to depend also on the beliefs partners have about the role each should play in a partnership – their ‘gender ideology’. Where both held more traditional beliefs, Ramos found, the division was more unequal and woman did the bulk of the domestic chores, namely food shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing and child care. Couples holding more egalitarian beliefs shared the housework load more equally.

In circumstances where the two partners held different gender ideologies, the man tended to do a smaller part of the domestic work. In other words, men do relatively little domestic work unless both they and their partners are relatively egalitarian in their beliefs about gender roles.

The domestic workload is still shared unequally in Britain. But this is not perceived as unfair. About three-quarters of men and women surveyed thought the division of housework time either ‘somewhat fair’ or ‘very fair’. Individuals have such favourable views, Ramos argues, because they take account of not only their own share of domestic labour but how much time they and their partners spend in paid employment.

Wednesday July 30, 2003 The Guardian


According to this research, women's continued high levels of employment outside the home have still not been accompanied by dramatic changes in who does the work in the home although there have been some changes. However there are differences between families according to age (though this is not developed in this summary), the amount of work that women do outside the home, and their beliefs (gender ideologies).