Conceptualising Gender Equality in Relationships

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

Below is a brief revision map of some of the main sociological concepts which have been developed to describe the ‘typical relationship’: taken together, they suggest a movement towards greater gender equality in relationships:

gender equality relationships

This is the briefest of revision slides on this topic, designed for A-level sociology paper 2: topics in sociology, families and households section (AQA exam board). For more details on this revision topic please see below…

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 – The Egalitarian and Negotiated Family

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.

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