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Family changes 3: The emergence of the symmetrical family?

It is argued that there may be more equality between partners in relationships today or that the family remains a patriarchal, male dominated unit. Well, in Britain since the middle of the twentieth century, relations between male and female partners in the family have become less patriarchal and therefore leading to a more 'partnership of equals' and that the assumption has been that there has been a change from the segregated roles that make a clear distinct separation of the roles between the male and female in the family, to more integrated roles which gives each partner more equal and shared jobs within the family. This more equally balanced relationship was called the symmetrical family by Young and Willmott.

Here are some examples of the difference between the segregated conjugal role and the integrated conjugal roles:

First off there is the major distinction between the two, with segregated conjugal roles partners within a married or cohabiting relationship have clearly separate roles within the family whereas partners in a married or cohabiting relationship have interchangeable and flexible roles for the integrated conjugal roles. Also segregates conjugal roles say that partners are likely to have different friends and leisure activities and not share common friends, leisure activities and decision making like in integrated conjugal roles.

And for segregated it is said that men take the responsibility for bringing in the money, making major decisions and doing the heavier and more technical jobs around the house and women are mainly seen as housewives, taking on the responsibility for the housework, shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare etc. and are unlikely to be in full-time paid employment. On the other hand integrated conjugal roles state that both partners are likely to be in either paid employment or looking for a job. The household chores and childcare are shared with the males taking on the traditional female jobs like the housework, shopping, cooking, cleaning etc., and vice versa with the females taking on the traditional male jobs of the household repairs, looking after the car etc.


It is often thought that this greater equality in marriage or cohabiting couples is shown by the women doing more of the men's work and the men doing the women's work, with shared leisure and decision-making. For men it was said in the media, that there was an 'emergence of a so-called 'new man', who was more caring, sharing, gentle, emotional and sensitive in his attitudes to women, childcare and his own emotional needs, and committed to doing his fair share of the housework and childcare.'

What causes these apparent changes?

There are several factors that are causing this increase in equality within family relationships, here are some:

- By having improved living standards in the home from the central heating, a TV, DVDs,computers and internet, and all other modern consumer goods. These living standards have encouraged husbands and wives or cohabiting couples to become more home centred which builds up the relationship at home

- There is less pressure from kin on newly married or cohabiting couples to retain traditional roles because of the decline of the close-knit extended family

- There is an improved status and rights of women encouraging men to accept women more equally and not simply just as housewives and mothers

- The increase in the number of women working in paid employment which increases women's independence and authority in the family

- The importance of women's earnings in maintaining the family standards which may encourage men to help more with the housework and the recognition that women can't do two jobs at once

- The weaker gender roles means that they can pick and mix their roles and identities based on personal choice


Elizabeth Bott identified the most important factor which influences these apparent changes in conjugal roles, she said it was down to the social network of friends, kin and acquaintances which was built up before marriage. This closeness of the network acted as a form of social control on the couple. For example if the women's friend shares equal roles within her family then this will be a great influence into thinking how the women should be like in her family. She said that in contrast, if there was a loss of the close-knit network then it would make movement towards more role integrated easier because those constraints would be removed.

Criticisms of the view that modern marriages and cohabiting relationships are really more equal

These views of having more equality in modern family relationships has been a subject to very strong criticism. This criticism is particularly given by feminist writers and that there is not really much evidence supporting that the family is now typically 'symmetrical'. Several of these criticisms are summarised in the following:

Inequalities in the division of labour in the household - There is evidence from a number of surveys suggesting that women still perform the majority of domestic tasks in the home even if they have paid jobs themselves. Also that they still undertake the cooking, household cleaning, washing and ironing and caring for the children especially when they are sick. National statistics show that women spend on average nearly twice as long as men each day (five hours), doing the cooking, cleaning, shopping, washing and looking after the children and that housework is the second largest cause of domestic rows, after money.

Ann Oakley, a feminist sociologist who did much of the pioneering work on housework and the roles in the family in 'The sociology of housework' (1974, argued that Young and Willmott's evidence for the idea of the symmetrical family is totally unconvincing as out of the supposed 72% of men that claim they help in the house fewer than 3/4 of them actually even did this much.

Susan Harkness supported Ann Oakley's views of the symmetrical family as she said that women still take responsibility for most of the housework and they put twice as many hours into it as their partners do. They are the ones that take time off of work to look after sick children, this includes more than half of women who earn the same as or more then their partners. They have the increase of pressure from the long working hours and the unpaid housework and childcare responsibilities.

Elston's (1980) research on the families where both partners are working in full-time career jobs and on doctors and Rapoport and Rapoport's (1976) study of professional and business couples, suggests that these professional wives are still expected to do all the major responsibilities for dealing with childcare arrangements, sick children and housework.This shows that even if women who are in full-time demanding career jobs are still treated primarily as housewives and mothers at home. This is the group that Young and Willmott argued would be most likely to display symmetry in the marriage.

Mary Boulton argues that many of these surveys exaggerate how much childcare men really do. She sees it as 'while men may help with childcare, it is their female partners who take the main responsibility for children, often at the expense of other aspects in their lives, like paid employment'.

In 2005 a report was done by the Institute for Public Policy Research. This found that the public's attitudes increasingly assume a high degree of gender equality in paid work, but this does not apply to home and family life. This research conducted that there is still a widely held belief among the public that women should be responsible for the care of the home and children. The statistics came up with 48% thought mothers should stay at home while children are under school age and 34% supporting part-time working.

Patriarchal ideology still seems to be seeing the housework and childcare as 'women's work' and the research that has been constructed over the past 35 years has repeatedly shown that nothing has changed since Oakley wrote in 'The Sociology of Housework': 'As long as the blame is laid on the woman's head for an empty larder or dirty house it is not meaningful to talk about marriage as a 'joint' or 'equal' partnership. The same holds of parenthood. So long as mothers and not fathers are judged by their children's appearance and behaviour... symmetry remains a myth.'


The unequal distribution of power and authority in marriage and cohabiting relationships - Examining how much control over decision-making each partner has is an important issue to consider when assessing whether there is more equality or not in the family. Research into this area suggests:

- Decisions like moving house or taking out loans which are thought of as 'very important' are finally made by men alone. Some decisions are done together or jointly but very few are made by just women. Edgell in Middle-Class Couples (1980) found out that only relitavely unimportant decisions were made by women, these of which were like home decoration, furnishing, childrens clothes, food and other domestic spending.

- Men are still often seen as as the major earners. This soley puts them into the bargaining position which is stronger than women which means in a scenario where the couple breaks up the male will want more of the goods because he was the one that earnt the money to buy them. This often puts the female partners in the position of economic dependance

- Evidence has proven that there is a widespread of male violence in relationship, which is often resorted to men using their power to try to get the woman to submit to thier wishes when they are drunk. This is very often not to be taken seriously by the police or the courts when it has been reported and is just dismissed as a 'domestic dispute'. This shows that this type of behaviour in the relationship may be interpreted as a 'normal' part of the relationship.



The effects of housework and childcare on women's careers - Women's careers suffer from the continuing responsability over the housework and childcare. From these constraints pressure is put on the energies of working women and particularly mothers and are seen to be holding back their earning power. Surveys that have been carried out show that women are limited in their jobs and the hours they work because they are still expected to take on these responsabilites of the housework and childcare and being at home for when the children come and go from school. There is little opportunity for working mothers to concentrate within their carrers from these family commitments and from this gain less pay, less security of employment and poorer promotion prospects than men, this then reinforces men's economic superiority and greater authortiy in the family.

There is still a lot of male prejudice over women who are in career jobs and senior postitions, therefore women face a number of disadvantages

- Women are seen by some employers as 'unrealiable' if they have children because of the assumption that they will get pregnant again or not be there to look after the children when they are sick

- Emoyers assume women will leave work eventually to have and raise their children and becaus of this the employers are sometimes reluctant to invest in expensive training programmes for them.

- Women can miss out greatly on pay and promotion opportunities when they have to temporarily leave their promising careers to have children and also women with young children may find it difficult to attend meetings which may affect their chances of promotion. Men continue to work and get promotions while women miss their opportunities as top jobs require a continuous career pattern in the 20 - 30 age period and these are seen as the usual childbaring years for women.

- 'Hidden discrimination' is often faced to highly qualified women who leave their jobs to have children or take career breaks to spend time with their young children, when they come back to work. Gatrell (2004) found that many of these women returning were labelled by hostile employes as 'jelly heads' and that they had 'no other option but to accept a downgraded position if they wished even to stay in their chosen professions, particularly if they asked for more flexible working arrangements to cope with their children'. Downgrading like this is illegal but many women don't fight their cases for fear of being labelled as 'awkward' which means they are consequently facing even further career disadvantages.

- Women are the ones that look after the children, elderly and sick which means they are mainly the ones to give up paid work or suffer from lost / resricted job opportunities

- Married or cohabting women interrupt their careers which leads to them starting again in a new job as they more likely to move house and area for their male partner's job promotion rather than the other way round. Giving the women a lower level job while men are getting promoted at the expense of loss opportunities for their partners



Domestic Labour - This refers to unpaid housework and childcare from women. This is a clear inequality between men and women and is made worse by some of the features of domestic labour that make it different from a paid job. These include no pay, no holiday, no pensions and unlimited working hours. This problem has been covered by Oakely's work. The Office for National Statistics in 1997 found research that if the tiem spent on unpaid work inthe home including childcare, washing, ironing, cleaning, shopping and cooking, was valued at the same pay rates as equivalent jobs in paid employment, for example working as a chef or childminer. The Legal and General insurance company found that 'both men and women severly under-estimated the monetary value of the mother's work at around 58% of its true value, and that mothers put in nearly twice as many hours each week as men on household duties.'

There are differing views about who benefits from domestic labour:

- Radical feminists see men as the main people who benefit from domestic labour since it is overwhelmingly women who do it. The inequalities in domestic labour are part of the problem of partiarchy seen from this point of view. With the family seen as a partiarchal unit, institutionalizing, reinforcing and reproducing male power.

- Marxist feminists see 'domestic labour as benefiting capitalism by contributing to the reproduction of labour power. Unpaid domestic labour reproduces the labour force at no cost to the capitalist, through the free production and rearing of children, and support for male workers. From this point of view, the family is a 'social factory', producing human labour power. Domestic labour also contributes to the daily reproduction of the labour force by providing for the physical and mental well-being of family members so theya re capable of performing labour each day for capitalist. However, Marxist feminists recognise it is also a problem of partiarchy, as it is women who do most of this unpaid work and it is predominatly men who benefit from it.'

How domestic labour differs from paid employement:

- It is monotonous and fragmented

- No starting and finishing hours or 'clocking on' and 'clocking off'

- Unpaid, and no fringe benefits such as pensions, sick pay, or paid holidays

- It is based on ties of emotion and personal relationships. There is no employment contract, no 'rights at work' and no chance of going on strike

- It has little status - it is not seen as real work at all, with no recognition from others

- It is seen as the primary role for all women

- No qualifications needed

- It is a privatized, isolated, solitary activity - there are no workmates



The emotional side of family life and women's 'triple shift' - Women take the major responsability for managing the emotional side of the family. Evidence for this comes from Duncombe and Marsden (1995), who found that many long-term relationships were held together by the women, rather than the men. Women put in the emotional work necessary to keep their relationships alive and seem to be more involved in the emotional aspects of childcare, such as, talking to, listening to, understanding and supporting children including older children. This emotional work also involves liaising between family members when there are rows and acting as the family mediator. This additional work is very much in keeping with the functionalist view that Parsons was talking about inthe 1950s when he wrote about the expressive role of women. But this expressive role of women within the emotional side of the family life is often now come over the top of their instrumental responsabilites in paid employment and domestic labour. Three jobs have come around from this as many female partens have paid work, domestic labour and childcare and emotional work, this is called the triple shift.



Changes in the family 4: the changing position of children

Childhood is the stage of life from infancy to adulthood. This is the main stage of development from growing up and learning along the way. Children are seen as innocent and vulnerable who need protecting from the dangerous things within the adult world. They need a long period of time to be socialized and supported by adults before they take on their own responsibilities. Social construction means that members of society are a huge influence for the characteristics shown in children by their attitudes, actions and interpretations. These certain characteristics that have been an influence could be their childhood, health, statistics, old age or what is regarded as deviance.

Sociologists do not believe that childhood could be moulded by biological immaturity which makes the children vulnerable and in need of care and protection from adults. They say that in fact, ‘childhood is a social construction’ as they believed that the identity and status of children and childhood are a separate period in life that has been formed by society and social attitudes. They feel that childhood has been influenced by the members of society and how they act towards it.These Sociologists came up with evidence to back up their point about the social construction.

This is as follows within the three main areas;

- ‘The differing status, responsibility and treatment of childhood in different contemporary cultures’

- ‘The way the view of the nature of children and of childhood, and the status, responsibilities and treatment of children have changed through history, and continue to change today’

- ‘The differences between children’s status and responsibilities even in the same society’



Within point one of the three main areas of evidence about the social construction, it is suggesting that within each culture children are treated differently due to the society they live in and their views about growing up. Within contemporary Britain and Western societies, many people take for granted the fact that children are fundamentally different from adults and feel that it is a privileged time of life compared to adults. They view the children as being vulnerable and needing the care and protection from them, and also that it is an easy time in life seeing as they do not need to take care of themselves or take on any other responsibilities.



Within point two of the three main areas of evidence about the social construction, it says that the way that childhood is, has changed an awful lot through history. Within medieval times childhood was not a separate status, children were often moved straight from infancy to working roles in the community. They were taken out of their most vulnerable time when care was most needed to go out and work just as hard as adults would. They were seen as ‘miniature versions of adults’ and were expected to take on adult roles and responsibilities as soon as they were physically able to do so and to also participate in all aspects of social life alongside their parents. From this information we can that at this time children did not have any type of childhood, this phase was skipped going straight into the adult world.


And within point three of the three main areas of evidence about the social construction, it shows us that there are still differences between children’s status and responsibilities even in the same society. Not all children have the same upbringing and experiences of growing up, this could be because of their social class, ethnicity or gender. An example of this would be, in 2005-6 around 29% of children in Britain were living in poverty which meant that they could not have had best childhood as they would have to go out and get jobs to earn money for themselves as the parents cannot give them any as they do not have enough for themselves, e.g. Paper rounds or working in shops. Also because of this the poorer children are more likely to get ill and get fewer educational qualifications then those who are better off, all because of the money situation.


Sociologists would argue the fact that society is the major influence into how the child is and what they become in life as they believe that the members in society determine their attitudes, actions and interpretations. Wherever they live the society around them will interfere and even take control of their life, determining their childhood and future from having or not having that childhood.


During the 20th century and early 21st, families have become more child - centred, this is because there are more family activties and outings that are often focused on the interests of the children. The amount of time that parents spend with their children has more than doubled since the 1990s, and now parents are more likely to take interest in their childrens activites, discussing decisions with them and treating them more like equals. One of the family's major priorities is often the children's welfare, frequently involving the parents in considerable financial cost and sacrifice. The reasons for child - centredness:

- Welfare state support for children - the welfare state offers many benefits to help parents care for their children which has increased demands on parents to look after their children properly. For example social workers have an extensive range of powers to intervene in families on belhalf of the children and have the ultimate power to remove children from families if parents do not look after them properly. 'The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 established children's legal rights and there is now a Minister for Children and a Childrens Commissioner to champion the views of children and protect and promote their interests.'

- Paediatrics and emphasis on parenting skills - Many books, television programmes and research now suggest how parents should bring up their children to encourage their full development. 'The nurtuing, protection and education of children are now seen as a vital and central part of family life with parenting skills and early years education now recognized as an important aspect of children's educational and social development'

- Early years education and compulsory schooling - 'Compulsory education and mroe tiem spent in further education and training have meant that young people are dependent on their parents for longer periods of time'

- Growing parental fears for child safety - Children now travel more with parents rather than being left to roam about on their own because of growing traffic dangers and parental fears of assaults

- Smaller families - Having smaller families since the end of the nineteenth century means that more indiviual care adn attention can be devoted to each child

- Chilren's consumer market - Large business specify into producing goods for children to consume. They encourage children to comsume and parents to spend to satisfy their children's demands

- Shorter working week - Today working hours are more like 44 hours (including overtime) and is tending to get shorter, meaning that parents get more time to spend with their children

- Higher living standards - This benefits children as having an increase in affluence, with higher wages, and a higher standard of living means that more money can be spent on them and their activites


Is childhood dissapearing?

Despite the rise in child - centredness we need to be aware that children are rapidly becoming exposed to a range of experiences that they share with adults, such as the mass media, especially the internet, televisions, videos, and DVD's. This may be removing the status between childhood and adulthood.

Postman (1994) was concerned with the disappearance of childhood. He argued that 'the distinction between adults and children disappearing and that there is a merging of the taste and style of children and adults, with behaviour, language, and attitudes becoming indistinguishable. In the contempory world, children are increasingly exposed to the same issues, themes and experiences as adults, and are no longer sheltered from adult experiences and knowledge, including sex, pornography, crime, alcohol and drug abuse and violence.

Adults and particularly older children lead increasingly seperate lives which means that parents are no longer able to be in control or manage the range of information, images, values and other influences from film, televion, DVD's, mobile phones video games, and the internet including chat rooms adn porn site, especially now that an increasing number of children have their own room with access to these things like a TV, DVD, mobile phone and computer. This then reduces the opportunities for the parents to socialize their children and regulate their behaviour.

The increasingly fast pace of technological and social change often means that children are more up to date than their parents. Children are more adapt to use computers and the internet which gives access to a range of different knowledge and imagery of which their parents may have little awareness of. This then creates the possibility that young people will be far more in tune with the future than the culture of their parents because they will increasingly develop culture that parents find goes beyond their comprehension or experience.

Has the postition of children improved or worsened?

' Most people would see the lives of children in contemporary Britain as a major improvement compared to the lives of children in earlier centuries, and as better than the lives of children in many other parts of the world. The status of children in the family has improved substantially, and most children are better cared for, better educated, and ejoy healthier and happier lives than ever before in history. Nevertheless, child - centredness doesn't mean that all children are well looked after. Abuse and neglect are all-too-common experiences for some children. An estimated 11% of young people ran away overnight on at least one occasion before their sixteenth birthday according to a 2005 report from the Children's Society. This suggests that the experience of family life for many children in contemporary Britain may not be a happy one, and their dependency on adults and their inability to obtain legal paid employment means they have few opportunities to escape unhappy lives. Neither should we assume that children themselves are the innocents they are sometimes made out to be. - underage drinking, drug abuse, antisocial behaviour and criminal activity.'

' Internationally, the position of many children still causes grave concern for many people, with common reports of the sale and trafficking of children, child prostitution, child pornography, children involved in armed conflicts as soilders and the illegal trafficking of children's organs and tissues.'

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