Family, work, parenthood and gender inequalities

Family, work, parenthood and gender inequalities

Isabel Dias 

Gender is a fundamental concept for analyzing women’s role within family relationships and the social division of work (Dias, 2007). The classic paradigms (positivist and functionalist), founded on the nature argument, have strongly resisted this new approach to the social relations between the sexes (Bourdieu, 1998) and legitimized the notion of female careers, which should nonetheless be compatible with family life and developed in sectors associated with femininity (Amâncio, 1994). In the end, the functionalist view naturalized differences between the sexes, giving to women the private/family sphere and a child-rearing role (without any type of questioning), while the public and professional sphere belonged to men. This gender contract has sustained deep inequalities between the sexes (Dias, 2007)

In the job market women have to contend with numerous inequalities (occupational segregation, concentration in part-time jobs, gender pay gap). They usually hold poorly-paid and unchallenging jobs (e.g., secretaries, caretakers, social workers, teachers). This occupational segregation results from a long process of socialization into professions that are socially and culturally constructed around gender. This process begins in childhood, inside the family, and in kindergarten. It takes root at school and university and crystallizes in the job market, where individuals make socio-professional choices, but are also chosen by employers (Couppié and Epiphane, 2006). Professional segregation is the product of a social construction that widely surpasses another, more occasional, phenomenon: job market discrimination in the legal and economic sense of the term (e.g. unequal treatment for equal people; unequal salary for equal work) (Dias, 2007). It is built in two different stages: firstly, it is prepared throughout the initial education of boys and girls, giving rise to so-called educational segregation; secondly, it operates through their different distribution in different professions. This distribution reflects sexually differentiated pairing mechanisms – between individuals and jobs – that take shape in the job market (professional segregation) (Couppié and Epiphane, 2006).

These gender-based inequalities do not disappear among the younger generations. Some still endure; others have assumed new forms. Even though the weight of family life on professional life is felt by both sexes, it works in opposite ways and remains limited to the job context occupied by men and women. The current job market, in the process of being reorganized, is still founded on traditional sex-based norms, harming the professional careers of many young women. The initial impulse given to the trajectory of female employment by a university degree tends to shrink when external and familial pressures become more defined. Favorable opportunities in employability and couple negotiation around job issues may inflect the weight of the family sphere for women. For them, entering the job market comes has huge costs in terms of stress, due to tensions in the allocation of time for work and family. This stress also results from the fact that men and women are aware of the discrepancy between the gender parity defended in Western societies and a socio-professional and familial reality where forms of discrimination continue to take place (Torres and Silva, 1998; Dias, 2007).

In the last few years, there has been a growing integration of younger women into senior positions (Laufer, 2005). This feminization results both from women’s investment in their education and the development of new roles that demand expertise (e.g. human resources, communication, management control, etc.), leading to new career models. Younger women believe these models are more compatible with a work-life balance. Nonetheless, the feminization of senior positions still unfolds along different lines. On average, women’s salaries continue to be lower than those of men in the same professional category, and this difference increases with age. Moreover, there are still fewer women than men in management positions. They are allowed to approach leadership roles, but the so-called “glass ceiling” that frames their professional trajectories keeps them in middle management. (Laufer, 2005). Women gradually evaporate from the hierarchical structure of companies. This reality results from a career management process that generates important differences between the sexes (Laufer, 2005).

Therefore, mothers who choose a full-time job face multiple scenarios: they may be undermined in their process of autonomization through work; their professional trajectories may be downgraded, i.e. they postpone them and reorient their life goals around marriage and motherhood. Family and conventional gender roles have to be denaturalized and the dichotomy between public space and private domain has to be rejected. Men (public space) and women (private space) do not work in naturally created contexts. On the contrary, these spaces result from complex processes of social construction and reflect (unequal) gender relations (Crompton, 2006; Dias, 2007).

On the other hand, we cannot forget the central role of unpaid work and its almost exclusive association with a single sex. Centuries of socialization and normative expectations have turned caretaking into a female attribute. Nonetheless, men can also provide care. It is important to recognize this fact, since unpaid work is codified in terms of gender, but is not gendered in the essential sense of the term (Crompton, 2006).

The contemporary model of female employability results from choices made by the individuals and the couple, but it also reflects particular constraints related to the nature of the job and the structure that surrounds it, such as an insufficient childcare network. Working mothers are still subjected to enormous stress. Today many women feel exhausted and blame themselves for paying less attention to their children than to their work (Torres and Silva, 1998).

The forms of sexual division of labor pertaining to childcare are reactivated with parenthood. Nowadays, new fathers cooperate more with women in raising and taking care of children. Cooperating or helping, however, does not mean truly sharing this type of chores. Men are still requested less than mothers and their contributions mainly appear in the field of the symbolic: openness to the world, authority, and boys’ sex education (Delforge, 2006). Sharing in this domain is still far away from an actual parity between men and women. Gender stereotypes are reproduced in parenthood processes. These reinforce a naturalized view of differentiated roles and cause us to ascribe parental attributes to each sex. Parenthood is not a purely biological question: it involves a complex process of social, cultural and ideological construction. Therefore, it reflects numerous obstacles to a true equality between men and women, i.e. the effective reorganization of the old gender contract (Crompton, 2006; Dias, 2007).

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Isabel Dias is an Associate Professor with Habilitation in Sociology Department of the University of Porto. Researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Porto (ISUP). She has coordinated and participated in several national and international research projects. She is director of the Master’s degree in Sociology of Faculty of Arts and Humanities University of Porto. The translation of this article was supported by Portuguese na­tional funds through FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, under project UID/SOC/4304/2019.