Culturally Constructed Gender Roles Lecture

Introduction to Labor Division and Gender Roles

Labor Division and Gender Roles:

The purpose for learning about and understanding labor division, in this introductory course, is not to delve into theories of whether or not labor divisions were constructed to oppress one or the other of the sexes.  What is appropriate here is to focus on the practicality of labor divisions and why they may have been culturally constructed into such patterns in the first place.

All groups of people,  societies, and cultures have practiced labor division of some kind, usually according to male or female and also according to age – young or old. We can necessarily make some assumptions with regards to biological characteristics of male and female.  For instance, tasks that require a lot of strength, such as cutting down trees, or felling a large mammal, may be relegated to males who are (in most cases) larger and stronger and have more muscle mass than do females.

Women, on the other hand are nature’s food producers for young infants.  So, a baby crying for a feeding would not be an asset on a hunt where stalking an animal in silence is necessary.


Still, “man the hunter, and woman the gatherer” is not going to fit into every society’s needs in the same way.  Sometimes ideology may get in the way of which sex is allowed to do what work.  In many societies, even modern ones, there may be taboos for both men and women.  Such taboos may include labor task specialization.

Specialization may be allotted to only men, or only women.  For instance in many societies men do not make baskets, and only older women may help men with such tasks as making fishing nets.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.  Nevertheless, these are things that may or may not affect which sex may do – or participate in which work.

Researchers today often argue that there is no logical or scientific reason for what we often refer to as “gender roles.”  Still others, like Murdock and Provost (1973) have conducted research, cross-culturally, of 185 different societies, with regards to labor divisions by sex.  Their findings are quite interesting.

Hunting large land mammals, overall, is a man’s job, as well as cutting down trees, fishing for large species, wood working, trapping large animals, building boats, and masonry.  They found that such tasks as milking, basket-making, collecting water, preserving of food, weaving, making clothing, pottery making, and spinning were mostly women’s jobs.

In a few societies, they found that such tasks as gathering plants, collecting firewood, tending crops and carving bones or working with shells could be allocated to either sex, but still predominantly male.  In nearly every society, cooking and caring for young children are women’s tasks.  In some Native American societies in North America only women may construct housing, and men take little part in raising young children.  However, in the Ju’/hoansi households in the Kalahari desert in Africa, men take equal part in care giving of the young.  How a society makes its living, and the ideologies embedded within it, dictates labor division; this is more or less the bottom line to deciding gender roles.

Sexual division of labor or SDL as it has been known, depends upon many factors, including geography, and how intensively agriculture may be practiced, to mention a couple. Women’s contributions may be less when there are bigger plots of land and more crops to tend, especially if there are older children to help.  Labor division may also depend upon the crop being cultivated, whether a root crop or one growing above ground. Women’s contributions to agricultural tasks are usually less when there is more reliance on domesticated animals.  Their contributions may be less due to lack of mobility when breastfeeding, as mentioned above.  These are only suggestions for reasons that labor divisions may decided upon.

We have discussed dividing labor among one sex or the other, but in some societies there are specific jobs that only men do and women may be forbidden to do; or where only women have certain tasks that men would lose face if they crossed the gender line.  These are societies with segregated labor divisions.  There are also societies where both men and women do almost any of the tasks that they are able to complete, so those societies have integrated labor division.  Other societies may not have restrictions on labor divisions and may work side by side in many of the same capacities.

Another labor division method is by age.  In Guatemala, several years ago, I was at an open market place where I watched young children selling goods from early morning to late evening, while their adults were busy manufacturing the goods at home or elsewhere.   The children were carrying such things as necklaces, purses, blankets, baskets, shawls, and hand-made headbands to sell to visitors, mostly tourists.  I saw children as young as six and seven years old putting in very long hours. I also saw young girls and boys cutting brush for firewood and loading heavy stacks upon their backs to carry home, many miles away.  Children are able to contribute significantly to some economies.  The United States, as an agrarian society for centuries, used children in various capacities in subsistence farming and after industrialization children worked in factories at a very young age.  Today there are child labor laws in most countries, prohibiting very young children from working, but many economies still depend on their labors, even though it may be against the law.

In the final lesson in this series, we will learn about peasants and their contributions.  In poor peasant societies, both older people and young children are expected to contribute to the main economy in many ways.  Older children and grandparents are expected to look after the young and to help in work that benefits the household.  Both older and younger people may weed gardens, work in fields, collect firewood, fish from shore, and prepare foods, as well as sell goods at markets, as mentioned earlier.

Basically, we see that labor divisions are culturally constructed depending upon a society’s economic specializations and tasks that are needed.  Looking for the root causes for labor divisions in societies seems to be more practical than trying to create theories, which may only be extrapolated and not always scientifically proven.

Yet, we cannot ignore that in largely populated urban societies women’s work is often deemed less important. In the long-term, women’s tasks as care givers of young children and the home, in any society, is the foundation for all other economic activities.

In urban centers, women leave home to do other work in order to supplement a family’s income, yet they are still expected to maintain the home front.  Many women are seeking educational opportunities in order to help them get higher paying jobs.  Yet, discrimination abounds in many workplaces, no matter how lowly the work may be esteemed.

In the following film of women’s struggles in Latin America, notice the hierarchies that exist between the sexual divisions of labor.

A question to be asked is why aren’t men joining the women in their efforts to create more equality in the divisions of labor?  In less conservative societies, they may be seen in co-ed activities for job equality, but not so often. There are no easy answers to questions regarding equality in labor divisions, and every answer will be different in every society.

In all the Global Villages, gender roles and age divisions of labor have been enculturated and embedded into societies, both large and small, for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years.  Cultural patterns so deeply entrenched are not easily changed.  As globalization floods the planet through immigration, travel, and technology, lines begin to blur about who can or should be able to do which tasks.  These are dilemmas that students should continue to think about and find ways to influence public policies wherever they may live.

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