sexual division of labour

sexual division of labour

a specific expression of the DIVISION OF LABOUR where workers are divided according to certain assumptions about ‘men's work’ and ‘women's work’. The sexual division of labour is based upon gender divisions which, although socially constructed, are frequently believed to be the outcome of the ‘natural’ attributes and aptitudes of the sexes. Some form of sexual division of labour is apparent in most known societies but its particular manifestation and degree of differentiation is socially and historically relative. It is particularly marked in industrial societies, where it is accompanied by a distinction between unpaid DOMESTIC LABOUR and WAGE LABOUR, between the PRIVATE AND PUBLIC SPHERES. Whilst these spheres are gendered (the private sphere being associated with women, the public sphere with men) such divisions are more ideological than empirical. Preindustrial societies and, particularly, many stateless societies, are characterized by a less defined division between the public and the private spheres, and stateless societies generally have a less pronounced sexual division of labour.

In contemporary capitalist societies, women are concentrated in particular industries, services and caring professions. Women's experience of paid work is predominantly one of poorer working conditions, lower levels of pay and under-unionization relative to men. Despite the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex

Discrimination Act 1975 women in Britain continue to earn only approximately 75% of the average male hourly wage. Women are also more likely than men to engage in poorly paid ‘homework’, and part-time work and to experience insecure employment. Barrett (1988) has suggested that both a vertical division of labour and a horizontal division of labour characterize men and women's work. In the former men are advantaged with respect to pay and conditions of work. In the latter women are to be found concentrated in a limited number of occupations which both reflect and reinforce social expectations about femininity and domesticity. Coulson et al. (1975) have suggested that the difference between men's and women's work and the segregation of jobs according to gender amounts to ‘industrial apartheid’.

It is important to recognize that such divisions must be understood by reference to a complex interaction between economic factors and the social order as a whole. Barron and Norris (1976) have argued that the labour market in capitalist societies is characterized by a division between the ‘primary sector’ (highly paid, secure, skills recognized) and the 'secondary sector’ (low paid. insecure and deskilled). Men occupy most of the places in the primary sector whilst women are consigned to the secondary sector. Such an approach fails, however, to explain why it is women who occupy the secondary sector. (see also DUAL LABOUR MARKET.)

The concept of the RESERVE ARMY OF LABOUR has been used to explain the sexual division of labour in capitalist societies by reference to a Marxist theory of capital wage labour. It emphasizes the interests of the employer in ensuring a dispensable work force which can be returned to the domestic sphere during periods of economic recession. Married women's paid labour is seen as similar to migrant labour in that it too provides capital with an industrial reserve army. However, there is no perfect comparison between married women's work and that of migrant labour. The concentration of women in certain sectors makes it difficult for employers to find substitutes for them and their lower rates of pay may protect them from redundancy The failure of Marxist theory to explain why women occupy the positions they do in the labour market has prompted a concern with the issue of domestic labour in the family and women's responsibility for it (see DOMESTIC LABOUR DEBATE). The relationship between women's position in wage labour and their role in domestic work and child care has been stressed by many feminist sociologists. Barrett (1988) has argued that women's position as paid workers is strongly influenced by the structure of the family, women's role in reproduction and the ‘ideology of domesticity’. Furthermore, the ideology of the ‘family wage’ in which men are regarded as the primary bread winners has functioned to keep women's wages lower than men's. Thus, the benefits derived by capital and by male workers must also be considered in any explanation. Cockburn (1983) has stressed the role played by organized male labour through its resistance to women's equality in paid work. Barrett (1988) has noted the labour movement's complicity with ‘protective legislation’ as a strategy for reducing competition from female workers. Precapitalist ideologies of gender render women vulnerable both to exploitation in the labour market and to oppression by men within the family. Women's domestic labour is deskilled by reference to the ideology of ‘maternal instincts’ and this deskilling carries over into paid work where women's involvement in caring and servicing work is seen as a natural outcome of gender attributes. Deem (1986) has shown that the impact of the sexual division of labour on women's leisure time has not been seriously considered within mainstream sociology. The study of women's work and women's leisure has been relatively neglected within the discipline until the late 1980s, when both Marxist and radical feminists started to address these issues.