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 in our societies .

This discussion has involved everything from feminist movements to various anthropologists, sociologists, economists, psychologists and other academics. The studies have focused on both their 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 terms what the sexual division of labour is, what theories explain its origins and how it influences our social organization today.

What is the sexual division of labour?

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

The studies about 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 the welfare of others), and a masculine identity related to the values of provision (the supply of resources necessary for subsistence).

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

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

Thus, 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 of the origin of the sexual division of labour propose that it arose from the fact that human societies stopped being nomadic (became sedentary), because it was then that 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.

Nevertheless, 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. In view of this, a large part of gender anthropology has taught us that, frequently, current androcentric prejudices are exported directly to the understanding of non-Western or “prehistoric” societies.

For example, in this area of study the activity of women collectors and potential 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.

In other words, anthropology has come to break many of the essentialist conceptions when it studies the differences between societies that are organized differently from the West, where the roles of care and provision are not the same and are not assigned to men and women in the same way as in the West. For example, it has been possible to analyze how in industrial societies the economy has stabilized over the unrecognized daily work of women (the tasks related to care and domestic space).

Illustrative elements of the sexual division of labour

The sexual division of labour 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 which are very relevant today.

Intrinsic and extrinsic restrictions on women’s labour participation

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

Intrinsic constraints are the beliefs, norms and values that have been internalized and that determine the differentiated responsibilities between men and women, i.e. the jobs that men and women are expected to perform in the labour market.

Extrinsic or imposed restrictions are those that come from states and markets, for example, employers’ 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 which authorities and resources. In this case it refers specifically to the unequal distribution between men and women within the labour markets (although it can also be applied to the domestic space).

This is important because there are several forms of segregation that are less visible than others. For example, although statistically women achieve 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.

One of these barriers may be the fact that women have joined the productive sector, especially if it is again a matter of exercising care tasks, and furthermore, without men having joined the domestic space in equal measure, which represents a double burden for women beyond emancipation.

The latter has brought about different debates on the reconciliation policies to 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 but also in qualitative terms , which is not possible to understand if some determining categories in social and labour relations are not considered, such as gender, class, race, age, among others. There is even a line of research that addresses all this, known as feminist economics of reconciliation.

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, and responsibility, among others.

To achieve these values, men have to be recognized as such by other people, which is largely the case through the paid workspace.

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

In short, the term sexual division of labour is an important line of research for analysing our societies and the history of women’s oppression. It arises from the criticisms that gender and feminist theories have made of the more classic perspectives on work, which, appearing neutral, tend to hide the fact that women’s activity has become naturalized because of its association with sex and gender; activity that , not because it is unpaid, ceases to serve as an important factor in maintaining the organization and economic system on a large scale.

Bibliographic references:

  • Benería, L. (1981). Reproduction, production and sexual division of labour. Meanwhile, 6: 47-84.
  • Brunet, I. and Santamaria, C. (2016). Feminist economics and the sexual division of labour. IV(1): 61-86.
  • Etcheberry, L. (2015). Women in a Chilean mining company: bodies and emotions in masculinized jobs. Unpublished thesis for the Master’s degree 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). La arqueología del género en la prehistoria. Some questions for reflection and debate. Revista Atlántica-Mediterránea de Prehistoria y Arqueología Social, 4: 321-343.
  • Siles, J. and Solano, C. (2007). Social structures, sexual division of labour and methodological approaches. Family structure and women’s socio-health function. Research and Education in Nursing, XXV(1): 67-73.