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Challenging Gender Inequality at home

Lauren Castle and Jemma Rimmer, University of Exeter
discussing challenging gender inequality at home
In this video we’ll explore the ways in which gender inequality is and can be tackled in the home. We’ll address these broadly under the headings of gender roles and socialisation, value, and cultural practice. As we have seen throughout the course, gender roles and gender stereotypes play a significant role in shaping expectations and attitudes, and these need to be tackled from a young age. From as young as eighteen months, children are said to start to form an awareness of gender and these are fairly well-established by the ages of six or seven. It’s crucial, therefore, that children are exposed to family dynamics that express gender equality and challenge gender stereotypes and gender norms.
This can be achieved by, for example, ensuring that paid working roles and domestic unpaid work is evenly shared and that tasks are not gendered – so-called ‘girl jobs and boy jobs’. Non-heterosexual partnerships are more likely to share housework. This means challenging stereotypes for who is a better fit for a role, such as assuming that women are better child-carers than men, or that men are better drivers. It is also important to challenge notions that men are ‘helping’ women in the house (rather than taking their share of the work) To achieve this, we also need to tackle the pressure exerted by ‘ideals’ – the ideal parent and the ideal worker.
The ideal parent puts pressure on the primary carer to always be available for their child, which can make balancing work and care a challenge. This has been termed the ‘Mommy Myth’. In contrast, by seeing parenting as a shared responsibility and appreciating that life is about balancing demands, one can take on multiple roles without feeling guilty for having ‘failed’ as a parent. Similarly, we need to recognise the problematic nature of the construction of an ideal worker as being the unencumbered worker who can always be available to work. Instead, one can be a good worker, even if working flexibly, or part-time.
These constructions need to be reinforced by public opinion (which determines what constitutes good parenting), and organisational practices (that support family-friendly working patterns). Better take-up of shared parental leave can also shift assumptions and practices. Despite the increasing availability of shared parental leave, and ‘daddy quotas’ (where fathers are given dedicated time for adoption or paternity leave), the take up has often been poor. This will be for a multiple of factors, including financial ones but also cultural ones. Importantly, this is beginning to shift, and shifting assumptions about who takes on what role plays an important part in this.
Furthermore, by sharing parental leave it breaks down the gender division of labour in practice, with knock on effects for the sharing of roles at home as well as the impact on career trajectories in the workplace. Practices in the workplace, which we’ll explore in more detail shortly, play an important role in reinforcing or challenging gender roles at home. One of the challenges to men taking on roles traditionally associated with women is the pressure men face to ‘act like a man’. This is receiving increasing attention under the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’.
Toxic masculinity refers to the traditional assumptions around what constitutes masculinity and the harmful effects on men, as well as women and society more broadly, as a result of men having to conform to this masculine ideal. For example, assumptions that men need to be ‘dominant’ and ‘tough’ have been linked with bullying, assaults and domestic violence, and expectations around not showing emotions have been linked with mental illness. These attributes are learned at an early age – for example the idea that ‘boys don’t cry’ (but girls do). In its extreme form, it has been associated with what Raewyn Connell has called ‘hegemonic masculinity’, where masculinity dominates the feminine. The concept is complex and controversial.
It does not seek to demonise men, nor does it consider all characteristics of ‘traditional masculinity’ to be toxic. However, it is also argued to over-simplify the concept of masculinity and ignore the patterns and behaviour and material factors that lead to so-called ‘toxic’ attributes. Nonetheless, discussions around toxic masculinity are important as it means that these gendered assumptions are being exposed and explored. It will not be possible to change expectations regarding what constitutes womanhood, and their roles, without also looking at what constitutes masculinity and their roles. Recognising that there are multiple masculinities and femininities, and that many have shared attributes, is an important step in making this change. We also need to revisit the value of domestic and caring work at home.
Although unpaid, the caring and household roles, primarily undertaken by women, contribute to the economic viability of the family unit. One could think about this in terms of how much it would cost to employ someone to childmind, cook, clean and so on. Appreciating the value of this work – even if unpaid – is important in valuing the contribution to the household. Furthermore, recognising the opportunity cost experienced by person undertaking this role (in terms of job opportunity, progression and so on), provides a richer picture of the role they play.
By appreciating the value of this contribution it can shift thinking about the status of ‘women’s work’, and also the implied hierarchy of status in which the paid breadwinner is often assumed to contribute more to the household than the one who runs the household. In certain cultures there are practices undertaken that challenge the human rights of young women, such as forced marriages and female genital mutilation (or FGM). Forced marriages are marriages that are made without the consent of one or both of the parties. This is different from an arranged marriage.
Both are organised by other parties – usually the parents – but an arranged marriage is undertaken with the consent of those who are to be married and are of legal age to enable them to consent. Forced marriages apply to those who are unable to consent, either because they are not legally of age, or are ‘of age’ but do not wish to get married. Although not exclusively affecting women, young girls are more likely to be the unwilling participant and there can be so-called honour killings, where the girl is murdered when she will not comply because her refusal is considered to bring shame on the family.
FGM is the cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia, more commonly practiced in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. There is no medical basis for the procedure, and it can result in pain and complications. It is a cultural practice that is outlawed in many countries, although considering it a human right’s abuse is challenged by some. The procedure is carried out when the girls are of a young age. In both the case of forced marriage and FGM, these practices reflect the control of young women, and their lack of consent. They have received much more attention recently, and awareness of these practices is growing.
In 2010 the United Nations asked medical practitioners to stop performing FGM, and many countries outlaw the practice. Units such as the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK raise awareness, provide public helpline and support to those affected. But more needs to be done to prevent these practices. Attitudes towards women, that some argue arise from toxic masculinity, can also be so problematic in some cases that it ends up leading to domestic violence. Domestic abuse predominately affects women, although in the UK around 40% of domestic violence reported affects men, suggesting that it affects more men that media reports might imply.
In more serious cases, for example domestic homicide, women account for over 70% of the victims in the UK, and nearly all of those prosecuted for coercive and controlling behaviour of a partner are men. Challenging the trope of hegemonic masculinity, as well as providing the appropriate support and refuge for those affected, could play a role in reducing the prevalence of this crime. As we can see, what affects the home is inextricably intertwined with what happens at work and in society more widely and we need to understand the causes of gender inequality as part of a wider complex system.
But tackling gender inequality at home, both in terms of the relationships between adults, and also the socialisation of children, can play a key role in tackling that.

SPEAKERS: Lauren Castle and Jemma Rimmer, University of Exeter

Materials written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter, with contributions from Lauren Castle


Douglas, S. Michaels, M. The Mommy Myth: The idealization of motherhood and how it has undermined all women. London: Free Press;2005.

United Nations (2010) call to end FGM, published by the World Health Organization.

The Office of National Statistics statistics on domestic violence

Raewyn Connell on masculinities

Further sources

Age of gender awareness

United Nations Female genital mutilation (FGM) frequently asked questions

A YouTube video on Forced v arranged marriage

UK Home Office statistics on Forced Marriage 2017

An article in The Conversation on gender inequality in housework

A blogpost in LSE business review on gender inequality at home and at work

A blogpost on women who quit their careers

Toxic masculinity

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