Domestic labor is mainly done by women, and it is mostly unpaid. Across the world, women are much more likely to do the cleaning, child rearing, and so on, while men are much more likely to spend their time doing paid work outside the home. This is known as the gendered division of labor. Obviously, these divides don’t always play out, but it’s an undeniable trend around the world.
So why is there a gendered division of labor?
Some say that men and women are naturally more suited to certain roles and skills. These expectations are known as gender norms, which are basically the different sets of rules and behaviors that people expect of men and women. Different societies have very different gender norms; for example, in Iceland only a small number of people (3.6%) believe women have less rights to certain jobs than a man, whereas in Egypt over 94% of people do.¹
But where do gender norms come from, particularly the idea that men should be out at work and women at home with the kids? There’s a number of competing theories, but a prominent one is the idea the gendered division of labor started with plough farming. Research seems to show that current gender roles are strongly correlated with the use of the plough in traditional agricultural societies.² The reason is because the plough gave men a competitive advantage over women in agricultural work, as it required greater upper body strength and bursts of power. Over centuries this cemented the idea that men were naturally better at work outside the home, and women more suited to domestic work.
Modern psychology has also shown that young children pick up the gender norms of their society at a very young age, being heavily influenced by the role models of parents, teachers and the gendered influence of the media, toys and consumer products.³
All this suggests that gender norms are not natural but they are created by society. How do we know this for certain? One obvious reason is the fact that gender norms, particularly around the home and work, have been challenged and changed over time. Women never used to be journalists, bankers, academics, doctors, and yet now they do all these jobs because society's attitudes have changed around what women can and should be able to do.