Gender Roles & Family Life

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • the arguments for and against the view that modern marriage is egalitarian in terms of the distribution of child-care, housework and decision-making
  • how family life might be a negative experience for some of its members

Conjugal roles: the division of labour in marriage

Functionalist sociologists such as Parsons, Fletcher and, especially, Willmott and Young suggest that industrialisation has led to an increase in egalitarian marriage, i.e. that the relationship between the spouses has become more equal in terms of participation in housework, child-care and decision-making.


Willmott and Young in their study The Symmetrical Family (1973) claimed that the extended family was characterised by segregated conjugal rolesi.e. husbands went out to work whilst wives were exclusively responsible for housework and child-care. Moreover, husbands and wives spent leisure time apart. Willmott and Young argued that the extended family has been replaced by a privatised nuclear family characterised by symmetryModern marriage is characterised by joint conjugal roles meaning that women are now going out to work and men are doing a fairer share of domestic tasks. Moreover, couples were now more likely to share both leisure time and decision-making. Willmott and Young concluded that egalitarian marriage was the norm in the symmetrical nuclear family of the 1970s.

The major challenge to the concept of symmetry has come mainly, but not exclusively, from feminist sociologists. Several broad areas of critique can be discerned in the sociological literature.

  • Oakley (1974) is critical of the methodological shortcomings of the Willmott and Young study. She suggests that their empirical evidence is unconvincing because it was based on only one question. Moreover, their study excluded younger married women who are more likely to have young children who tend to be more time-consuming.
  • A range of surveys appeared in the 1980s and 1990s which demonstrated continuing inequalities in the distribution of housework and child-care between husbands and wives.


  • Elston’s (1980) survey of over 400 couples, in which both partners were doctors, found that 80% of female doctors reported that they took time off work to look after their sick children, compared with only 2% of male doctors. Elston concluded that only a minority of professional couples in her study genuinely shared housework and child care. Drew et al. (1998) confirm these trends in the mid 1990s.
  • Pahl (1984) conducted a survey of 750 couples and discovered that unemployed men did more around the home, but wives, when they were in work, were still expected to be responsible for the bulk of housework.
  • The Time Use Survey of 2005 carried out by Lader et al. (2006) found that women in paid work spent 21 hours a week on average on housework, compared with only 12 hours spent by men on the same. Overall, this survey found that 92% of women do some housework per day, compared with only 77% of men. In 2005, women still spent more time than men cooking, washing up, cleaning, tidying, washing clothes and shopping. DIY and gardening tasks were still male dominated.
  • Gershuny (1994) and Sullivan (2000) both suggest a trend towards equality in the share of domestic work because of the increase in the number of women working full-time. Gershuny’s data suggests that the longer the wife had been in paid work, the more housework her husband was likely to do.
  • Crompton (1997) argues that as women’s earning power increases relative to men’s, so men do more housework. However, so long as earnings remain unequal so too will the division of labour in the home.

  • Data from the British Household Panel Survey (2001) suggests that whatever the work–domestic set-up, women do more in the home than men. For example, when both spouses work full-time, and even when the man is unemployed and his wife works, women put more hours into domestic labour than men. This is known as the dual burden or shift – women are still expected to be mainly responsible for the bulk of domestic tasks, despite holding down full-time jobs. Bittman and Pixley (1997) suggest that this inequality is a major cause of divorce today.
  • Edgell (1980) focused on the distribution of power within marriages. Edgell discovered that wives deferred to their husbands in decision-making about important issues such as buying a new house or moving job. Similarly, Gershuny’s (1996) survey of young married couples with children concludes that the decision to have children, although jointly reached, dramatically changes the life of the mother rather than the father – especially in regard to career advancement.
  • Women are also responsible for the emotional well-being of their partners and children. Duncombe and Marsden (1995) found that women are expected not only to do a double shift of both housework and paid work, but also to work a triple shift that includes soothing the emotions of partners and children. This emotion work often leads to the neglect of women’s psychological well-being and can have negative consequences for their mental and physical health.
  • Bernard’s study of marriage (1982) found that the men in her study were more satisfied with their marriage than their wives, many of whom expressed emotional loneliness. Moreover, these men had no inkling that their wives were unhappy.
  • Barrett argues that patriarchal ideology expects women to take only jobs which are compatible with family commitments. Women are often made to feel guilty about working because they subscribe to the idea that it somehow damages their children.
  • In the early 1990s, many sociologists concluded that the role of fathers was changing, e.g. men in the 1990s were more likely to attend the birth of their babies than men in the 1960s and they were more likely to play a greater role in child-care than their own fathers. Burghes (1997) found that fathers were taking an increasingly active role in the emotional development of their children, whilst Beck (1992) notes that fathers increasingly look to their children to give them a sense of identity and purpose.
  • However, it is important not to exaggerate men’s role in child-care. Child-care is still overwhelmingly the responsibility of mothers, rather than jointly shared with fathers. Gray found that many fathers would like to spend more time with their children, but are prevented by long work hours from spending quality time with their children.

Modern marriages, therefore, do not appear to be as equal as functionalists suggest. Furthermore, although this inequality may be partly responsible for the rise in divorce, many women often accept this inequality without question because they too have been socialised by patriarchal ideology into seeing such inequality as natural and normal.

The dark side of family life

Many commentators argue that the rosy picture of nuclear family life transmitted by functionalism and the New Right obscures the contradictions that permeate family life in reality.

  • If we examine criminal statistics, a very negative picture of family life emerges. Most recorded murders, assaults and child abuse – both sexual or otherwise – take place within the family unit. Three-quarters of all violence is domestic (and these are only the reported cases). On average, one child a week in Britain dies at the hands of its parents, usually its father or stepfather. Despite the problems in measuring the extent of child abuse, most experts agree that it is a major social problem today.
  • The radical psychiatrists Laing (1970) and Cooper (1972) argue that the family ‘terrorises’ children by destroying their free will, imagination and creativity. Both suggest that the family is responsible for turning imaginative children into conformist automata. Laing suggests that schizophrenia is caused by experiences within the family. He argues that family relationships are potentially destructive because the intensity of nuclear family life means that we worry about how much we are loved by other family members, particularly our parents. Laing argues that as a result of these anxieties, family members become like gangsters, offering each other mutual protection and love to be used against other family members. Consequently, we become mutually suspicious of each other’s motives and this becomes the basis of mental breakdown and family arguments and feuds which can last for years.

Domestic violence

The official statistics tell us that violence by men against their female partners accounts for one-third of all reported violence. Stanko’s (2000) survey found that one incident of domestic violence is reported by women to the police every minute in Britain. Mirlees-Black and Byron (1999), using data from the British Crime Survey, found that women were more likely to suffer domestic violence than men – 70% of reported domestic violence is violence by men against their female partners. Nazroo’s research indicates that wives often live in fear of men’s potential domestic violence or threats, whilst husbands rarely feel frightened or intimidated by their wives’ potential for violence. There are a number of explanations for domestic violence.

  • Gender role socialisation – feminist sociologists note that boys are socialised into ‘masculine’ values which revolve around risk-taking behaviour, toughness, aggression and proving oneself. Violence for some men may be a product of such socialisation.
  • A crisis in masculinity – some men may experience a ‘crisis of masculinity’, as working women and unemployment have challenged men’s status as head of the household and breadwinner. Some men, therefore, may use violence to re-assert their masculinity and status within the family unit.
  • Alienation and powerlessness at work – Marxist-feminists suggest that capitalism has stripped male workers of dignity, power and control at work. Marxist feminists, such as Ansley and Feeley, argue that men’s frustration and alienation within capitalism is absorbed by the wife in the form of domestic violence. The powerlessness that men experience at work can be partly compensated for by asserting power and authority in the home.
  • A patriarchal society and police force – feminist sociologists point out that patriarchal society has until fairly recently condoned male violence in the home. Dobash and Dobash argue that both the State and the criminal justice system have failed to take the problem seriously in the past, e.g. the police traditionally regarded it as a ‘domestic’ or private affair between husband and wife and were extremely reluctant to prosecute husbands.
  • Familial ideology – the mother-housewife role carries with it certain cultural expectations which are largely defined by men. If a woman fails to fulfil these expectations punishment in the form of domestic violence may be forthcoming. Research indicates that men’s view that women have failed to be ‘good’ partners or mothers is often used to justify attacks or threats. However, even women are influenced by this ideology – many of them blame themselves for their partner’s violence.



  1. What do sociologists mean by the term ‘symmetrical family’?
  2. On what grounds did Oakley criticise Willmott and Young’s study?
  3. According to Dunscombe and Marsden, what does women’s triple shift include?
  4. What do the views of Leach, Laing and Cooper have in common?
  5. Which approaches tend to overlook the ‘dark side’ of nuclear family life?


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