The burden of unpaid work

How can there be gender equality if women are still doing most of the unpaid, domestic work? University of Cambridge sociologist Professor Jacqueline Scott says the issue goes to the crux of the gender equality debate, but it’s hard to disentangle from related subjects such as equal pay and gender expectations, particularly around childcare. She spoke to

How can there be gender equality if women are still doing most of the unpaid, domestic work? University of Cambridge sociologist Professor Jacqueline Scott says the issue goes to the crux of the gender equality debate, but it’s hard to disentangle from related subjects such as equal pay and gender expectations, particularly around childcare.
She will be talking about it at a session at the Guardian Hay Festival on 31st May.
She says that for all the changes that have gone on in recent decades, the slowest movement has been in men’s roles, despite many men expressing a desire to share more of the childcare.
One reason is that the male breadwinner model still dominates due to social expectations, often embedded in legislation, and hard economics. For instance, if men are paid more, it makes less economic sense for them to cut their hours to help with unpaid work like childcare and housework. If women still see themselves as the primary carers of children, they are likely to feel the onus is on them to reduce their paid work, even if only in the early years, so they can be around for their children. Once out of the workforce, though, it is harder to step back in, particularly at the same level. The result is that many working mothers take on part-time positions and end up doing most of the housework, meaning they face a double work burden as well as lower career prospects and lower pay.
“What we have now is a modified male breadwinner family,” says Professor Scott. This makes women, especially those who are not married, very vulnerable financially if their relationship breaks down.
She notes the wider social impact of the inequality in unpaid work distribution. A recent study, for instance, shows a higher marital breakdown rate for men who share less of the housework.
She argues, however, that it is not that men are just not doing their fair share of the work. If you look at the total share of work done by couples in the UK, she says, it is more or less equal since men are working longer paid hours. What is unequal is the amount of the unpaid part of that work which is done by women, far more than in countries like Sweden where there is more emphasis on policies, such as shared parental leave, which encourage parents to divide childcare responsibilities more evenly.
“While there is not a big gap in workload, what there is is a huge disparity in power and rewards,” she says.

Things are changing, but at a slower rate than many want. Professor Scott says: “Men do expect now to play more of a role in childcare. The stereotype that they are not carers goes against the evidence of, for instance, men caring for partners who have become ill. Men can care. The issue is whether society allows them to.”
She admits, though, that gender stereotypes are hard to break and, although the media can push the debate forwards, some parts of it also tend to exaggerate stereotypes by playing up supposed conflicts between working mums and stay at home mums. It also tends to feed working mothers’ guilt by emphasising research which suggests a detrimental impact of working mums on children’s education or health and playing down studies which point out the benefits of working mums as role models for their daughters.
Professor Scott, who is co-editor of the recently released book Gender Inequalities in the 21st Century, has nevertheless been surprised by the virulence of traditional mother-type lobby groups and how environmental and health issues had been worked into the equation, such as campaigns to extend breastfeeding. “Extended breastfeeding is just another way of saying stay at home mother,” she says. “It’s an ideological debate and one which is hard to assess in research. You have to ask the right questions to find out what is really going on.”
Despite doubts about how progressive the new Government will be on gender equality – she cites, for instance, the Conservatives’ opposition to compulsory gender pay audits – Professor Scott thinks the general trend is progressive. Even if the younger generation are being subjected to strong gender stereotypes via the market – pink princesses for girls and blue action figures for boys – she says research shows young adolescent girls are more egalitarian than their mothers, even if boys are not showing any great change in aspirations from those of their dads.
“It is very difficult to change cultural norms overnight,” she says. “Things are changing – women are more represented in positions of influence in industry, for instance. The longer term picture is of very gradual progress with setbacks and shifts forward. Legislative changes like extending paternity leave can push things forward, even if there is not a great take-up. It nudges society forwards. Progress will not be overnight, but things are moving in the right direction.”  


Comments [2]

  • Mandy Garner says:

    It’s an interesting issue. In the Gender Inequalities book there is a whole chapter on the change in policy in Norway to support longer term breastfeeding by Anne Lise Ellingsaeter. Norwegian women have the highest breastfeeding rates in the Western world and the highest employment rates for women. Since 1976, recommendations on breastfeeding have been tied to those from the WHO and promoted by health authorities. In 2001, the WHO recommended children be solely breastfed for their first six months. Most women do not comply with this, but the country now has a state action plan to encourage compliance. Some see this as "breastfeeding talibanism" and something that makes it difficult for men and women to share the care directly after a child’s birth. Is it going too far in the absence of good research to show the benefits of long-term breastfeeding over formula? Are "the interests of the child" more important than those of the parents? Personally, I have breastfed for fairly extensive periods [partly, I have to confess, due to laziness], but mixed with formula so not solely breastfeeding. I was useless at expressing milk, for instance. While I think it is good for women to have the option over what they do, I don’t think there should be too much state intervention on this.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi, lots of sound comments in the blog above – however, I think Professor Scott needs to have a little care around her comments on breastfeeding and stay at home mums. My first child was almost exclusively fed on breast milk up to the age of 5 1/2 months, which he thrived on. At this point (5 1/2 months) I then returned to work (in a management role) requiring only a private room to express at lunchtime and a freezer (canteen) to store it. I weaned him onto solids a week or so after returning to work, but continued to breast feed up to one year, which I guess many would call extended breastfeeing. The whole arrangement was repeated 2.5 years later, with another employer for my second child. I am definitely not the most organised nor practical person, it just needed a little practice with expressing/ freezer bags, but it was not difficult. My point is – we know from ongoing research how valuable breastfeeding is for the long term health of a child, however long or short a period it is carried out. I would hate to see breastfeeding being pulled into the debate about mothers returning to the workplace – it doesn’t have to be a factor at all. The key is getting employers on board with the very basic facilities required to support breastfeeding mothers, as outlined above. (I should know, I set up such an arrangement, at least 10 years ago when I was working within a very male-based, engineering office). That is the main barrier, not the extended breastfeeding itself.

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