Toilet Sign

The total amount of work done by men and women in the UK is roughly equal, but the bulk of unpaid work is still done by women rather than men. Jacqueline Scott’s research examines the societal causes and consequences of that problem and how, slowly, the situation may be changing.

Men can care. The issue is whether society allows them to.

Dr Jacqueline Scott

How can there be gender equality if women are still doing most of the unpaid, domestic work? Jacqueline Scott, Professor of Empirical Sociology at Cambridge 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.

For instance, she says, if men are paid more, it makes less economic sense for them to cut their hours to help with unpaid work like childcare, or housework. If women see themselves as the primary carers of children, they are likely to feel that the onus is on them to reduce their paid work, even if only in their children’s early years, so that they can be around for them.

Once out of the workforce, though, it’s harder to step back in, particularly at the same level. The result is that many working mothers have part-time positions and end up doing most of the housework, meaning that 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 Scott, whose work involves the analysis of recent changes in women’s patterns of employment. One such change has been a rise in the number of mothers of young children who remain in the workforce. This makes women, especially those who are not married, very vulnerable financially if their relationship breaks down.

Scott, a Fellow of Queen’s College, will be speaking about some of these themes in her talk on equality and paid and unpaid work at the Hay Festival.

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. As co-ordinator of GeNet, the Economic and Social Research Council’s Gender Equality Network, Scott has known of the study for some time, but says it is “most extraordinary” that there have been so few studies on the subject of men’s involvement in unpaid work and its impact on gender equality.

Partly, she says, this is because much of the focus of recent gender equality research has been on mothers and employment. Women’s roles have changed dramatically in recent decades while men’s have been slower to adapt. Also, she says, academics tend to live in a world where there is more flexibility and more egalitarianism in men and women’s roles.

Another big factor is the lack of good, longitudinal data at an individual level which can track the impact on relationships of things like childbirth and changing employment patterns.

This is all set to change, however, as the ESRC has won funding to increase the scope of the British Household Panel Survey from 5,000 households to 40,000. This, Scott says, will put the UK at the forefront of large-scale household studies.

If you look at the total share of work done by couples in the UK 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, there is a huge disparity in power and reward,” she says.

There is evidence that both men and women want change, although the extent to which this is true varies according to social class and ethnic background. In general, however, men tend to want to increase their role in childcare and women want better job prospects.

“Men do expect now to play more of a role in childcare,” Professor Scott says. “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 forward, some parts of it also tend to exaggerate stereotypes by playing up supposed conflicts between working mums and the stay-at-home alternative. It also tends to feed working mother’s guilt by emphasising research which suggests the detrimental impact their employment is having on children’s education or health, while playing down studies which point out the benefits of working mums as role models for their daughters.

Scott, who is co-editor of the recently-released Gender Inequalities In The 21st Century, has nevertheless been surprised by the virulence of traditional mother-type lobby groups, and by how environmental and health issues have 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 the Conservatives’ opposition to compulsory gender pay audits and their focus on promoting traditional nuclear family values through marriage), Scott thinks that the general trend is progressive. Even if younger generations are being subjected to strong gender stereotypes via the market – pink princesses for girls and blue action figures for boys – she says that research shows young adolescent girls are more egalitarian than their mothers, even if boys are not showing any great change in their aspirations from those of their dads.

“It is very difficult to change cultural norms overnight,” she adds. “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.”

Professor Jacqueline Scott will be speaking at the Hay Festival on May 31st at 5.30pm.

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