For most people around the world, physical work takes up a lot of time and energy every day. But what determines whether men or women work more at home?
In most hunter-gatherer societies, men are hunters and women are gatherers – men seem to walk the farthest. But what about the collapse of the labor force in other societies?
We conducted a study of farming and herding groups in the Tibetan borderlands of rural China—an area of great cultural diversity—to determine what factors actually determine who works harder in a family and why. Our results, published in Current biologyilluminates the gender division of labor in many different types of society.
The majority of adults worldwide are married. Marriage is a contract, so you might expect the costs and benefits of the union to be roughly equal for both parties.
But unequal bargaining power within a family—such as one person threatening divorce—can lead to unequal participation in the partnership.
We set out to test the hypothesis that leaving the maternity ward after heterosexual marriage to live with your spouse’s family might contribute to increased workload. In such marriages, the new person usually has no relationship with anyone in their new family and has no shared history with them.
Therefore, without blood relatives around them, they may be at a disadvantage.
The most common form of marriage around the world is where women are “dispersed” and leave their maternal home, while men stay with their families in their place of birth. This is known as paternal neighborhood.
Neolocalism – in which both sexes are dispersed in marriage and the couple lives in a new location away from their families – is another common practice in many parts of the world. Matriarchy – where women stay in the birth family and men move in to live with their wives and families – is extremely rare.
And dilocalism—where neither sex leaves the house and the husband and wife live separately—is extremely rare.
Fortunately, in the diverse borderlands of Tibet, all four different dispersal patterns can be found among different ethnic groups.
Our study focused on rural villages from six different ethnic cultures. With our colleagues from Lanzhou University in China, we interviewed more than 500 people about their post-marital dispersion status and invited them to use an activity tracker (such as a Fitbit) to assess their workload.
Women work more
Our first finding was that women worked much harder than men and gave more of the fruits of their labor to their families. This is shown by both their own reports of their work and their activity trackers.
Women walked an average of more than 12,000 steps per day, while men walked just over 9,000 steps per day. So men also worked hard, but less than women. They spend more time on leisure or social activities or just hanging around and relaxing.
This may be partly because women are, on average, physically weaker than men and thus may have reduced bargaining power. But we also found that people (both men and women) who disperse in marriage to live away from their relatives have a higher workload than people who stay in their natal families.
So, if you are a woman and move away from home when you get married (as most women do around the world), you suffer not only in terms of family absence, but also in terms of workload.
When both sexes disperse and no one lives with their birth families, both sexes work hard (because there is little help from relatives) – but the woman still works harder. According to our study, full gender parity in workload occurs only in cases where men disperse and women do not.
These results help us understand why women disperse around the world, but men generally do not. Scattering is especially bad for men—adding about 2,000 more steps per day to their step count, but only about 1,000 steps per day for women.
Time and energy spent on farming, herding and housework compete with free time. Therefore, the significant share of labor for households in these rural areas can lead to spending less time for rest.
From an evolutionary perspective, forgoing rest is not desirable unless it contributes to higher fitness—such as increased survival of offspring.
We don’t really know if it’s desirable in this case because there hasn’t been much research done on it. This may be true in poor, rural areas around the world, but less so in richer areas.
For example, in most urban areas, sedentary lifestyles are becoming more prevalent. And research has shown that sedentary lifestyles in such areas among white-collar workers are becoming an important public health issue. They are associated with many chronic diseases such as obesity, infertility and several mental health disorders.
Gender inequality persists in the workload both at home and abroad. Our study now provides an evolutionary perspective on why women carry more workloads than men.
But everything is slowly changing. As women increasingly raise families away from their partners and their own families, their bargaining power is increasing. This is reinforced by the increasing level of wealth, education and autonomy they generate.
Finally, these changes cause men to take on an increasing workload in many urban, industrial, or post-industrial societies.
Yuan Chen, PhD Candidate in Evolutionary Anthropology, UCL and Ruth Mace, Professor of Anthropology, UCL
This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.