While reading Pat Mainardi's article "The Politics of Housework" I couldn't help but think of that tired old line, 'the more we change the more we stay the same.' I wish that this article didn't ring true, that I could say the division of housework was an issue for my mother but I have overcome it, or even that I know anyone who has achieved perfect harmony with her partner regarding who does the dishes. But I cannot.

The 'liberated' woman- she who is always sexually available, doesn't require marriage, has career goals, and makes a good vegetarian stir-fry- is the ultimate accessory for the 'sensitive nineties guy', now the 'man of the new millennium'. Women are still a commodity, perhaps even more so living in a time when even 'alternative lifestyles' seem to be for sale. What disturbs me is that most of us don't even talk about it outside of women's studies. We just go on with school and summer jobs, continuing to faithfully pay half the rent every month, believing that this is equality. If we occasionally speak of unsatisfying relationships it is to say that the passion seems to be gone, or that it seems stagnant, or we don't want to get too tied down. What we really mean is that we see ourselves becoming domesticated and often feel powerless to stop it.

Most of my male friends seem to actually believe that their relationships are equal partnerships, after all they both work, and he occasionally cooks dinner and picks up after himself. Many men are still too 'hip' to admit that they still participate in an oppressive system.

The nature of reproductive labor is that it is never done. Meredith Tax explains in "Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Daily Life" that the job of the housewife is not to produce a tangible product, instead her labor serves "to maintain the status quo" thus it is never ending. Yet this labor is necessary for all human beings to continue living their lives. Marxism acknowledges this labor within the family as vital to capitalism, but does not acknowledge working-class men as exploiters of women's domestic labor. Betsy Warrior explains the relationship of women's domestic labor to the means of production very clearly in "Housework: Slavery or Labor of Love." It is not only the capitalist male, but also the working-class male who benefits from women's domestic labor. She shows that, despite his own oppression under capitalism, the working-class male is also a capitalist profiting from the labor of women. She states, "When he sells his labor power on the market he is selling a commodity he owns but did not produce, thereby profiting from the slave labor that went into the making of this product."

Warrior suggests that the only way to overcome the sexual division of housework is to incorporate domestic work into the "public economy." But I have to ask, who will do this 'public' work? As long as the patriarchal capitalist system is in place won't drudgework still be delegated to oppressed groups? Will being a maid ever be a job that someone aspires to? Hiring a maid to do the housework and watch the kids may be a very attractive option if one can afford it, but if the maid is not paid for the true value of her work (something few could afford) then one is simply foisting one's oppression off onto another person. This is no real solution.

Mainardi make the important point that it is difficult for someone who has always considered himself to be against oppression to admit that the he oppresses others. This is not unique to men, it is also difficult for many straight white middle-class feminists (including myself) to admit that we oppress racialized women, or lesbian women, or working class women. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the struggle, but sometimes we can help best by admitting our faults and working to change them.
This paper shall address the ways in which the Sexual division of labor cannot be seen to be a benefit for women. However to understand how this is so firstly one must comprehend the origin of the segregation, the ways in which it exists presently and reasons why it is still prevalent. Once this has been established, the reinforced thesis will be that only with further equity seeking schemes can the segregation of women and their opportunities to succeed be equated to that of the remaining male population.

It is my understanding that the sexual division of labour is a concept that encompasses the trend for women and men to have different circumstances applied to them when in employment. Generally women are segregated to the subordinate levels of a hierarchy based upon patriarchal domination (Bulbeck 1998). However “there is no consensus concerning the cases of the rise and persistence of sexual segregation in the labour force (Curthoys 1986:320). Despite this lack in consensus it is believed that in close association to the division of domestic work in the home where women are seen to be obligated with the majority of household labour (Abercrombie et al. 2000), the sexual division of labour came to exert pressure upon the work force.

The foundation of the sexual division of labour as said previously is most likely to have emanated from the way in which domestic tasks are allocated within the home. Evidence does not signify that men do not do any of these tasks but rather “husbands’ housework usually involves relatively infrequent, non-routine outdoor tasks such as lawn mowing and home maintenance” (Stafford in Sutton 1995:10). Despite the male counterpart taking part in tasks the larger part of unpaid household labour is still completed by women (Bittman et al. in Pocock 2001). This phenomenon has multiple origins such as “conservative religious affiliation” (Jones in Sutton 1995:19) and others assert that it was an emergence of a ” domestic economy movement among the professional middle classes” (Baxter 1993:20) that intentionally went about to modify the nature of housework (Baxter 1993). Despite this lack of knowledge with regard to the basis of the domestic discourse of labour, the general sexual division of labour is the macro theory, which needs to be addressed.

This trend has extended itself to the paid labour force where the division between the type of work, type of occupation and type of pay differs greatly. In July 2004 the unemployment rate was at a relatively high 3.8 (Labour Force Statistics 2004:12), however approximately 85% of those who were employed were full time employees (Labour Force Statistics 2004:12). Despite this bittersweet result the division of labour strictly divided these results. On a ratio of 2.6:1 (men to women), women where clearly left out of the majority of the 85% of full time work (Labour Force Statistics 2004:12). To add further inequality 78.7% of casual employees were women (Labour Force Statistics 2004:12), which was a slight improvement on the 84.9% in 1999 (Casual Employment 1999:3) but there is a noticeable way in which the sexual division of labour effects the type of employment that is held by both women and men.

Another way in which the sexual division of labour inflicts inequality upon society is the amount of pay given to each gender. According to past sentiments women use to be paid 59¢ to the dollar (Cohn 2000), despite a slight improvement however in the 1990s of “nearly 75¢ to the dollar” (Cohn 2000:114) the sexual division of labour consistently exerts inequality upon women with regard to their average rate of pay.

Also the other prevalent way in which the sexual division of labour applies pressure upon the work force is through what type of occupation the genders submit to. The example given is that the majority of Executive Directors are male and the larger part of clerical staff are female. Within a “Major Computer System of a Public Institution” (Peitchinis 1989:92) it is displayed that all 6 executive directors are men (Peitchinis 1989:92) and the break up of employees in an “Information Systems Department of a Large Commercial Enterprise” (Peitchinis 1989:94) illustrates that all secretaries, data entry operators are female with the exception of one Data control clerk (Peitchinis 1989). These examples demonstrate that the occupations pursued by women have already been chosen for them by society. Whether they adhere to this rigid discipline was up to the individual, or society’s remedies.

The ongoing causes of these inequalities that disallow prevention are many. To group them more coherently they have been broken up into four theories/hypotheses; these are the overcrowding hypothesis, the human capital theory, comparable work theory and production constraint theory (Cohn 2000:115-131). The first of which addresses the question of education and suggests that due to women being limited to occupations because of education they are forced to enter occupations that have lower wage brackets (Cohn 2000). The human capital theory examines how society views that while “men expect continuous employment, women because of their reproductive role expect intermittent employment (Curthoys 1986:323). In the comparable worth theory, it is asserted that due to society deeming that women’s tasks are worth less than that of men, they are consequently paid less (Cohn 2000). The last in reference is the production constraint theory that displays that women are seen as less productive than men because men make it so, they fail to recognise the equal production available between the genders and consequently assume the productivity of women is less than in comparison to that of the man (Cohn 2000).

These notions which address how the sexual division of labour continue to prevail in the work place and the previous examples of the extent in which the division effects the labour force end what my understanding of the sexual division of labour is. To follow is not only how the segregation does not benefit women, but also the fact that a level playing field needs to be established to no longer exclude a large majority of women from equality.

As stated previously the division of labour is anything but a benefit for women. For it differentiates in rigidity the type of employment, the wages and the type of occupation in which women must then pursue due to lack of choice. Thus there is no benefit for women with this phenomenon, the only benefit to come from it would be equity to give advantage to women in order for their opportunities to become equal with that of men.

The two key ways in which equity is being addressed is through affirmative action plans and gender mainstreaming practices. A general definition of equity is that “everyone should have the same chance to succeed” (Bulbeck 1998:305). The paradox with this is that this attempts to catch-up with equality but inturn may mean that it treats individuals unequally (Bulbeck 1998). In this macro economic case however there is a wide consensus on these practises in regard to the sexual division of labour and the collective compromise has been made to accept them in exchange for equality (Bulbeck 1998). The first practise which aims at equity enhancement is the affirmative action plan. These plans do not solely deal directly with allowing more women acceptance into a larger plethora of occupations, types of work and equal wages but more primarily insists upon a more convenient and reassuring environment in their workplace (Pratt 1993). This is by eliminating discrimination not only on the grounds of gender but also on the grounds of “Race… Religious or Political Belief… Age… Disability… or any other ground specified” (Equal Employment Opportunity 1996:4). Such examples of putting child care legitimacy “on the agenda of corporations” (Pratt 1993:11), the right to defer for paternity leave has been sought and achieved (Pratt 1993) as well as encouragement for the implementation of anti sexual discrimination policies and of course the increase in “women contributing to senior management positions” (Pratt 1993:12). This action aims at benefiting women who are discriminated by the division of labour.

Secondly gender mainstreaming also tries to add gender equality to the labour force by promoting participation through education to the people who are affected internally and externally (Gibb 2001). Examples given in the Information Technology sector are through essentially organizing “task forces or focal points to recommend steps they organizations could take to increase women’s participation in science and technology” (Gibb 2001:29). Also to reinforce these programmes such as changing not only actions but also perceptions affect increasing equality. An illustration of this is that in secondary school, girls are given a false ideal of what the information technology sector is like, they are presented with a field which demands “masculine attributes to exist” (Nielson et al. 2000:51). To combat this misconception the programme attempted to “provide better-formed perceptions and career expectations” (Nielson et al. 2000:51) of the Information Technology industry.

In essence the sexual division of labour thus cannot benefit women for the playing field is already too unbalanced to even view equality as realism. Thus the only way women can be benefited from this division is for the segregation to call upon equity for women, despite the fact that this may come in the way of un equal treatment in comparison to the remaining community.


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Baxter, J., (1993) Work at Home: The domestic division of labour, University of Queensland Publishing: Brisbane.

Bulbeck, C., (1998) Social Sciences in Australia, Harcourt: Sydney.

Bulbeck, C., (1998) Social Sciences in Australia, in Dossier of Readings 1908 AMC Defining Women: Social Institutions and Cultural Diversity, 2003, School of Arts, Media and Culture, Griffith University, Brisbane.

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Gibb, H., (2001) Gender Mainstreaming: Good Practices from the Asia Pacific Region, in Dossier of Readings 1908 AMC Defining Women: Social Institutions and Cultural Diversity, 2003, School of Arts, Media and Culture, Griffith University, Brisbane.

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Pocock, B., (2001) Having a life: work, family, fairness and Community in 2000 in Dossier of Readings 1908 AMC Defining Women: Social Institutions and Cultural Diversity, 2003, School of Arts, Media and Culture, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Pratt, V., (1993) Affirmative Action 1986-1992: Progress and Challenges in Edward, W., Pratt, V., (eds) Making the Link: Affirmative Action and Industrial Relations, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, pp11-15

Sutton, J., (1995), The Gendered Division of Household Labour: the effects of religious affiliation, religious intensity and gender on attitudes to gender roles, Graduate Diploma of Psychology dissertation, Griffith University.

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