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Sexual division of labor: what it is, and explanatory theories

Sexual division of labor: what it is, and explanatory theories

October 4, 2022

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

In this discussion, feminist movements have participated to different anthropologists, sociologists, economists, psychologists and other academics. Studies have focused on both their causes and their consequences, and there are many proposals that largely depend on the specific tradition of who explains them.

Here we present roughly what is the sexual division of labor, what theories explain its origins and how it currently influences our social organization.


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What is the sexual division of labor?

When we talk about the sexual division of labor, we refer 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 the tasks that are fundamental for social organization, according to what corresponds to someone for being a man or what corresponds to him 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 the public space, which in turn configures a feminine identity in relation to the values ​​of care (towards procuring the welfare of others), and a masculine identity related to the values ​​of the provision ( the provision of the necessary resources for subsistence).


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

In other words, women have traditionally been reduced to biological reproductive capacity, with which their main economic activity is the reproduction of the labor force, and thus has been historically charged with the care . And men have been understood in relation to physical force, and with this, they are assigned the 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.


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Theoretical proposals about 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 that was when the first settlements similar to cities were built, which generated the need to establish collaborative tasks that were based on the 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 that, a large part 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 area of ​​study has been investigated the activity of women collectors and potentially inventors of agriculture, but also their activities related to hunting, as well as the possibility of 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 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).

Illustrative elements of the sexual division of labor

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

1. Restrictions intrinsic and extrinsic to 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, usually in the case of managerial positions or those associated with public administration.

The 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 the states and the markets, for example the preferences of the employers, the 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 of social segregation refers to how access to different spaces is distributed, and from which authorities and resources. In this case, it makes specific reference to the unequal distribution between men and women within the 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 can also face other barriers that are a consequence of gender inequality within those positions.

One of these barriers may be that women have joined the productive sector especially if it is again to exercise care tasks, and also, without men have been incorporated into the domestic space in equal measure, which represents a double burden for women beyond emancipation.

The latter has brought 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 must not only be understood in quantitative terms, but qualitative , which is not possible to understand if some determining categories are not considered in social and labor relations, such as gender, class, race, age, among others. There is even a line of research that addresses all this, known as the feminist economy of conciliation.

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

In sum, 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 to the more classical perspectives on work, which, when they appear as neutral, tend to hide that women's activity has become naturalized due to its association with sex and gender. ; activity that not being unpaid stops serving as an important factor to maintain the organization and the economic system on a large scale.

Bibliographic references:

  • Benería, L. (1981). Reproduction, production and sexual division of labor. Meanwhile, 6: 47-84.
  • Brunet, I. and Santamaría, C. (2016). Feminist economics and the sexual division of labor. IV (1): 61-86.
  • Etcheberry, L. (2015). Women in a Chilean mining company: bodies and emotions in masculinized jobs. Unpublished thesis to obtain the degree of Master in Social Sciences, University of Chile.
  • Mora, E. and Pujal i Llombart, M. (2018). Care: beyond domestic work. Revista Mexicana de Sociología, 80 (2): 445-469.
  • Murdock, G. (1973).Factor in the Division of Labor by Sex: A Cross-Cultural Analysis.Caterina Ethnology, 12 (2): 203-225.
  • Sánchez, O. (2001). The archeology of the genre in prehistory. Some questions to reflect and debate. Atlantic-Mediterranean Journal of Prehistory and Social Archeology, 4: 321-343.
  • Siles, J. and Solano, C. (2007). Social structures, sexual division of labor and methodological approaches. The family structure and the socio-health function of women. Research and Education in Nursing, XXV (1): 67-73.

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