Sexual Division Of Labor: What It Is, And Explanatory Theories

sexual division of labor

The sexual division of labor, that is, how productive and reproductive tasks have been distributed according to sex and gender, has long been recognized as one of the most basic forms of social and economic organization of our societies

From feminist movements to different anthropologists, sociologists, economists, psychologists and other academics have participated in this discussion. Studies have focused on both its causes and consequences, and there are many proposals that largely depend on the specific tradition of the person explaining them.

Below we present in broad strokes What is the sexual division of labor, what theories explain its origins and how it influences our social organization today.

What does the sexual division of labor consist of?

When we talk about sexual division of labor we are referring to the process by which skills, competencies, values ​​and/or responsibilities have been attributed to a person based on their biological characteristics associated with one or the other sex. This translates into the division of tasks that are fundamental for social organization, according to what corresponds to someone for being a man or what corresponds to someone for being a woman.

Studies on the sexual division of labor have made it possible for us to analyze why women are traditionally linked to the domestic space and why men are more linked to public space, which in turn configures a feminine identity in relation to the values ​​of care (towards seeking the well-being of others), and a masculine identity related to the values ​​of provision ( the supply of the resources necessary for subsistence).

In this division, the activities of the domestic space have been considered more in terms of moral and biological responsibility, therefore, it has not been recognized as a “formal job” (such as paid work). Unlike the activities of public space related to provision, which are those that are recognized in terms of commercial productivity, which has a direct relationship with economic exchange.

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In other words, women were traditionally reduced to biological reproductive capacity, so their main economic activity is the reproduction of the labor force, and thus has historically been responsible for the care And men have been understood in relation to physical strength, and with this, they are assigned tasks related to public space and economic production.

This is how, from this division, a series of beliefs, norms and values ​​are generated and transmitted from which the ideals of femininity and masculinity emerge.

Theoretical proposals on the origins of this division

The most classic explanations about the origin of the sexual division of labor propose that it arose from the fact that human societies stopped being nomadic (they became sedentary), because it was then when the first settlements similar to cities were built, which generated the need to establish collaborative tasks that were based on reproductive capacities that gave rise to social organization through the family.

However, some traditional studies on gender and work in prehistory have had the effect of legitimizing the inequality that underlies this division, because they present it as something natural and intrinsic to our biology; that is, as a fixed and immovable fact. Given this, much of gender anthropology has taught us that, frequently, current androcentric prejudices are exported directly towards the understanding of non-Western societies or “prehistoric”.

For example, in this study area, the activity of women gatherers and potentially inventors of agriculture has been investigated, but also their activities related to hunting, as well as the possibility of the existence of matriarchal societies in the current European area.

That is to say, anthropology has come to break many of the essentialist conceptions when it studies the differences between societies that are organized differently from the Western one, where the roles of care and provision are not the same nor are they assigned to men and women of different ages. the same way as in the West. For example, it has been possible to analyze how in industrial societies the economy has stabilized on the unrecognized daily work of women (tasks related to care and domestic space).

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Illustrative elements of the sexual division of labor

The sexual division of labor is transformed as the means and relations of production in our societies change. In general terms, Etcheberry (2015) proposes three elements that can serve as a guide to explain gender relations in the workplace and that are important today.

1. Intrinsic and extrinsic restrictions on women’s labor participation

In general terms, this dimension refers to the difficulty and inequality of opportunities that women can face. when we want to access the labor market For example, when we have to compete with men for a position, generally if it is management positions or those associated with public administration.

Intrinsic restrictions are the beliefs, norms and values ​​that have been internalized and that determine the differentiated responsibilities between men and women, that is, the jobs that men and women are expected to perform in the labor market.

Extrinsic or imposed restrictions They are those that come from states and markets, for example, employer preferences, rules of access and control of resources, technology and knowledge, access to communication and education, among others.

2. Vertical and horizontal segregation of women in paid work

The term social segregation refers to how access to different spaces is distributed, and from what authorities and what resources. In this case, it specifically refers to the unequal distribution between men and women within labor markets (although it can also be applied to the domestic space).

This is important because there are several ways to segregate that are less visible than others. For example, although women statistically have greater access to education or jobs of different types, they may also face other barriers that are a consequence of gender inequality within those positions.

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One of these barriers may be that women have joined the productive sector, especially if it involves once again performing care tasks, and furthermore, without men having joined the domestic space to the same extent, which represents a double burden for women beyond emancipation.

The latter has brought about different debates about the conciliation policies that should be implemented in different countries, so that the distribution of tasks can be balanced.

In other words, Segregation should not only be understood in quantitative terms, but also qualitative ones, which is not possible to understand if some determining categories in social and labor relations are not considered, such as gender, class, race, age, among others. There is even a line of research that addresses all of this, known as feminist conciliation economics.

3. Masculinities and paid work

Masculinity and femininity respond to a historical and cultural process of construction of values, practices, roles and bodies Some values ​​generally attributed to normative or hegemonic masculinity are autonomy, freedom, physical strength, rationality, emotional control, heterosexuality, righteousness, responsibility, among others.

To achieve these values, men have to be recognized as such by other people, an issue that occurs largely through the paid work space.

In our societies generally public and productive space is related to the need to ignore ailments, discomforts, diseases; and the private tends to be related to care, spaces for children, women, the elderly, as well as the roles of mother-wife-housewife.

In short, the term sexual division of labor constitutes an important line of research to analyze our societies and the history of oppression of women. It arises from the criticisms that gender and feminist theories have made of the most classic perspectives on work, which, by appearing neutral, tend to hide that women’s activity has been naturalized by its association with sex and gender. ; activity that Not because it is unpaid does it stop serving as an important factor to maintain the organization and economic system on a large scale.