Professor studies couples’ division of labor


Working-class couples who buck the tradition of marriage are far more traditional in their views on gender roles and household responsibilities than might be expected, suggests a new study from Dr. Amanda J. Miller, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Indianapolis.

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The conventional notion of male breadwinner and female homemaker still guides at least some behaviors, even for couples in which the woman is the primary financial provider or at least one partner wishes to have a nonconventional arrangement.

“Many people have thought of these cohabitors as very egalitarian,” Miller said. “In fact, in many ways, these working-class cohabitors are playing house. They’re acting out the roles traditionally played by married people.”

She and co-author Sharon Sassler of Cornell University interviewed 30 working-class cohabiting couples for their paper, “The Construction of Gender Among Working-Class Cohabiting Couples,” published in the December issue of Qualitative Sociology.

In addressing the division of paid and domestic labor, the couples fell into three categories: Conventional, in which each partner accepts the traditional gender role; Contesting, in which one partner (generally the female) tries to forge a more balanced arrangement, though often unsuccessfully; and Counter-Conventional, in which the female partner often provides financially and still must perform most of the household labor.

Even those men who were being supported by their partners generally lived under the assumption that the man is the head of the household and the woman is largely responsible for domestic work, Miller said.

“A number of these working class men wanted the respect of being the breadwinner, but were not necessarily taking on that role,” she said. “While they were content to let their girlfriends pay at least half of the rent, they admitted that they had no plans to take on half of the housework, even if their partners were very unhappy about doing more than their fair share.”

The responses suggest, Miller said, that working-class men – who were far more likely than women to lose their jobs in the latest recession – may be clinging tightly to their privileges at home as they lose ground in the workplace. Not surprisingly, she and her colleagues have found in their other research that many cohabiting women view marriage as a path not to a better relationship, but to an even greater workload both in and out of the home.

“They’re afraid that they’re going to be doing even more than they do now,” Miller said, “which may help explain the retreat from marriage among those with less than a college education.”