Are men and women equal in relationships?

Most Sociological theorising has stressed the fact that gender roles in family life have become increasingly equal since the 1950s

The 1950s – The Traditional Nuclear Family and Segregated Conjugal Roles

In the 1950s, Sociologists such as Talcott Parson’s (1955) argued that the ideal model of the family was one characterised by segregated conjugal roles, in which there was a clear division of labour between spouses. Parsons argued that in a correctly functioning society, there should be a nuclear family in which

  • The husband has an instrumental role geared towards achieving success at work so he can provide for the family financially. He is the breadwinner
  • The wife has an expressive role geared towards primary socialisation of the children and meeting the family’s emotional needs. She is the homemaker, a full time housewife rather than a wage earner.

The 1970s – The symmetrical family and joint conjugal roles

Based on their classic study of couples in East London in the 1970s, Young and Wilmott (1973) took a ‘march of progress’ view of the history of the family. They saw family life as gradually improving for all its members, becoming more equal and democratic. They argued that there was a long term trend away from segregated conjugal roles and towards joint conjugal roles

  • Segregated conjugal roles – where couples have separate roles: A male breadwinner and a female homemaker/ carer, and where their leisure activities were separated
  • Joint conjugal roles – where the couples share tasks such as housework and childcare and spend their leisure time together.

Wilmott and Young also identified the emergence of what they called the ‘symmetrical family’: one in which the roles of husbands and wives, although not identical are now much more similar:

1. Women now go out to work full time
2. Men now help with housework and child care
3. Couples now spend their leisure time together rather than separately
Relationships today – Are characterised by greater equality and choice

Anthony Giddens argues that in recent decades the family and marriage have become more egalitarian because:

  • Contraception has allowed sex and intimacy rather than reproduction to become the main reason for the relationship’s existence
  • Women have gained independence because of greater opportunities in education and work

Ulrich Beck puts forward a similar view to that of Giddens, arguing that the traditional patriarchal family has been undermined by two trends:

  • Greater Gender Equality – This has challenged male domination in all spheres of life. Women now expect equality both at work and in marriage.
  • Greater individualism – where people’s actions are influenced more by calculations of their own self-interest than by a sense of obligation to others.

These trends have led to the rise of the negotiated family. Negotiated families do not conform to the traditional family norm, but vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decided what is best for them by discussion. They enter the relationship on an equal basis.

Evaluations – To what extent are gender roles becoming more equal?

Evidence of women going into paid work and the gendered division of labour

  • It seems obvious that women going into paid work has resulted in greater equalit. As most women are now in paid-work this means they have more financial independence than ever before.
  • Statistics (see the next topic, link below) clearly show that the gendered division of labour has become more equal since the 1950s

However, Radical Feminists argue that paid work has led to the dual burden and triple shift

One argument used to support this view is that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal – men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.

Evidence on gender roles and parenting

Some research suggests there is greater gender equality

Research by Gayle Kaufman consisting of interviews with 70 American fathers with at least one child under the age of 18 found that between 1977 and 2008 the average American man increased the amount of time spent on household chores and childcare by more than 2 hours per day on average each workday. Statistics suggest that increasingly men are performing a ‘second shift’ when they return home from work, spending on average 46 hours a week on on childcare and housework, which suggests that it is increasingly men rather than women who face the ‘dual-burden’.

Kaufman identified two new types of dad based on how they responded to the challenges of balancing work and family life.

  • ‘New Dads’ which were by far the largest category placed a high priority on involvement with children and made some minor adjustments to their work practices – such as getting to work later or leaving earlier, or ‘leaving work at work’ or bringing work home with them, and trying to juggle that and family duties.
  • Superdads actively adjusted their work lives to fit in with their family lives – by changing careers, cutting back work hours or adopting more flexible working hours. These dads saw spending time with their children as the most important thing in their lives, with money and career as less important.

However, we are a long way from actual equality

Focusing on the UK, ONS data reveals that at the end of 2012 there were just over 6,000 more full-time, stay-at-home dads looking after babies and toddlers than there were 10 years ago, which is hardly a significant increase

Also, although fathers always say they want to spend more time with their kids rather than working, the evidence does not back this up – a third of men don’t take their two weeks paternity leave, 40% say they don’t intend to take the 6 months they are now entitled to and 90% say they wouldn’t take more than 6 months if it was offered to them.

The Emergence of ‘Intensive Motherhood’ suggests things might even be getting worse for some mothers…

According to Sharon Hays (1996) it is still mothers, rather than fathers who remain the target of most parenting advice, and today all mothers are expected to live up to a new norm of ‘intensive mothering’ – a style of mothering that is ‘expert-guided’ and child centred as well as emotionally absorbing, labour intensive and financially expensive, requiring a 24/7 focus on the child.

Hays suggests that intensive mothering has become the taken for granted ‘correct’ style of mothering , and the the focus is typically on the mother and not on the father.

Radical Feminists also remind us that 9/10 single parents are female.

Related Posts

To what extent is the domestic division of labour characterised be equality?

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2 Responses to Are men and women equal in relationships?

  1. Pingback: To what extent is the gendered division of labour characterised by equality? | ReviseSociology

  2. Pingback: Female Discrimination Based on Gender Roles in Canada: Is Defeat Impossible? – female gender roles

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