Doing Gender in the Family: Household Production Issues

ABSTRACT - Gender issues have been investigated in many domains, including the workplace, the marketplace, and leisure activities. An assertive female may do gender quite differently in the workplace than at home. We argue that the most basic form of gender is observed within the family, where issues of attraction between the two sexes are prominent as are the expectations for the fulfillment of various household obligations. This paper reviews literature investigating the interface between gender issues and spousal household production issues, and ends with a call for expanded research on this critical issue.


James W. Gentry and Lee Phillip McGinnis (2003) ,"Doing Gender in the Family: Household Production Issues", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 309-313.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 309-313


James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska

Lee Phillip McGinnis, Washburn University


Gender issues have been investigated in many domains, including the workplace, the marketplace, and leisure activities. An assertive female may do gender quite differently in the workplace than at home. We argue that the most basic form of gender is observed within the family, where issues of attraction between the two sexes are prominent as are the expectations for the fulfillment of various household obligations. This paper reviews literature investigating the interface between gender issues and spousal household production issues, and ends with a call for expanded research on this critical issue.


We examine the family literature (primarily from North America) in Consumer Research to see how gender differences have been observed (measured) in terms of household production and consumption behaviors. Given the paucity of work in consumer research on any household type other than married couples, our focus will be on married couples. We will examine behavior that may not be indicative of the underlying decision processes in the family and on the ole that gender plays in these processes. Next we look at family conflict, and its gendered nature. In both the marketing and sociology literatures, we find evidence that healthy families attempt to suppress conflict, and we review literature covering these processes. Finally, we end with a section pointing out needed research improvements that will allow us to understand how doing gender in the family is changing at this point in history.


In nearly all societies, there has been an inside/outside dichotomy in terms of the roles assigned within couples. Women, due to the stronger link to young children because of the birth process and to their generally smaller physiques, have been assigned roles inside the home, while men have been responsible for the outside roles, whether it was the provision of fresh meat, financial dealings with others, or, more recently, yardwork. Thus men have fulfilled the more instrumental family roles while women have traditionally fulfilled the more nurturing, supportive roles. To a great extent, these sex-differentiated roles have become inculcated without being questioned sufficiently as to their appropriateness to modern (or post-modern) society. By following conventional notions of gender, marketers often perpetuate sex-differentiated roles, which help substantiate segmentation strategies. But if women are the primary financial providers for the household, should they also be expected to fulfill the nurturing role as well?

Evidence of Women Changing Roles

The changing work status of women in the 1970s and 1980s stimulated a great deal of research concerning decision roles and shifts in role responsibilities. In part, this research may reflect the assumption that roles within the family were expected to change as the wife entered the outside domain. Much of the research dealing with the wife’s changing work status was based on the fairly simple premise that working wives would be more time crunched, and would seek "time-saving" products and services in order to fulfill traditional gender roles. Some research did find shifts in wives’ traditional roles. As reviewed in Commuri and Gentry (2000), it has been found that working wives spend less time in the supermarket, that working wives take fewer shopping trips, that wives in the labor force use more time saving (preparing fewer meals at home, reduced time for leisure) and time buying (child care, disposable diapers) strategies, and that working wives do less housework.

The preponderance of research, however, found no differences between working and non-working wives in terms of their purchases of timesaving goods (see Commuri and Gentry 2000 for a review). To the contrary, Bryant (1988) and Joag, Gentry, and Ekstrom (1991) found that non-working wives are more likely to buy timesaving durables. It appears that rather than changing gender roles through the shift of traditionally female activities to men, what we are seeing is the decline of the total incidence of household activities. Those doing them want to do them more efficiently, but others find overall time efficiency by changing the expectations regarding such activities. As Commuri and Gentry (2000, p. 11) noted, "household decision making not only involves he versus she, but also 'them’ and 'no one.’"

Evidence of Men Changing Roles

As noted in the previous section, little evidence has been found to indicate that husbands have taken on additional household responsibilities or traditionally "female" household roles, consequently providing little incentive for marketers to change gendered marketing strategies A relatively consistent finding (Commuri and Gentry 2000) has been that husbands’ behavior regarding household production to be the same regardless of the wife’s working status. In fact, DeVault (1997) found that working wives reported doing more housework than did single mothers. In terms of decision roles, Green and Cunningham (1970, 1975) found that husbands of employed women made significantly fewer decisions by themselves than did husbands of non-working wives. However, the roles were not given over to wives by themselves, but rather were shared.

Again, there is little very evidence to indicate that men are doing more domestic labor. Thompson and Walker (1989, p. 857) concluded that, "in spite of all the talk about egalitarian ideology, abstract beliefs about what women and men 'ought to do’ are not connected with the division of family work." Allen and Walker (2000, p. 7) made an even stronger conclusion concerning the division of domestic labor: "There is no better predictor of the division of household labor than gender. Regardless of one’s attitude about 'gender’ roles, the resources one brings to the relationship, and the time one has available, there is nothing that predicts who does what and how much one does in families than whether one is a woman or a man." Most men do so little in the way of housework that Miller and Garrison (1984, p. 328) called research in this area "much ado about nothing."

Even when men report doing more domestic work, an emphasis on household behaviors may not represent a true picture of household responsibilities. Komter (1987) argued that the focus on observable outcomes diverted attention from the underlying processes. Even if women receive help from family members, many report that the help must be supervised (Berheide 1984). Some found it easier to do the housework themselves than to get other family members to do it and meet their standards. DeVault (1997) noted that even in households in which husbands did most of the cooking, the wife was still the household manager and controlled most planning functions related to cooking. Coltrane (1989), in a study of fairly "egalitarian" dual-career couples, found that women were more likely than men to be managers of household duties and that "helper" husbands often waited to be told what to do even though duties were supposedly shared.

Other studies that point toward a need to examine the underlying processes include Ehrensaft’s (1987) study, who found that women usually bought the children’s clothes and made sure they looked presentable, even when the father actually dressed the child. Hertz (1986) found that, even in high earning couples that hired housework done by others, the ultimate responsibility for household management still fell to the wives. Twiggs, McQuillan, and Ferree (1999) found that in cases where men do participate substantially in household chores, they must cross a series of hierarchical gendered thresholds in order to become high participators. For example, the lowest level tasks, or those that appear to be more gender-neutral, include doing dishes and going grocery shopping, while at the high end is cooking meals. Grocery shopping being a low-level task could have serious marketing implications, especially for those consumer researchers concerned with changing role expectations. Overall, these studies indicate that there is a need to look beyond outcome-based research to that which looks more closely at the underlying processes.


The topic of "family" has long been associated with "conflict." Scanzoni (1979) noted that the greater the relationship is, the greater is the inevitability of conflict. From a research perspective, this association of "family" and "conflict" has no doubt been exacerbated by what Hirschman (1993) referred to as the prevailing masculine research paradigm in consumer research, one that focuses on competition as opposed to cooperation. Commuri and Gentry (2000) argued tha most family research has been undertaken from a fairly sterile, competitive perspective, implying an "either/or" mentality on the part of the spouses. For example, Qualls (1988, p. 443) stated, "Influence is defined in the present study as the perception of the action taken by one spouse to obtain his or her most preferred decision outcome while simultaneously stopping the attainment of their spouses’ most preferred outcomes." As a result of this competitive perspective, love, intimacy, and other related constructs have been largely ignored in consumer family research, with exceptions such as Park, Tansuhaj, and Kolbe (1991) and Park et al. (1995).

The consumer literature on family conflict in purchase contexts is somewhat limited, and the incorporation of gender perspectives within it is even more limited. There were strong early efforts (Granbois 1963; Pollay 1968) to develop frameworks for studying conflict resolution in families, but little subsequent work was undertaken. Further, the models discussed several strategies with little coverage of how they varied by gender. However, some strategies such as Pollay’s (1968) discussion of the use of sex as a bargaining tool did have gender implications.

Household Production Issues

A major focus of family conflict research has been the allocation of household production responsibilities. This is a very relevant topic for marketers given the concern about who uses household products and about who makes the purchase decisions for them. Marketers have conventionally targeted women as the decision makers. DeVault (1997, p. 190) asserted that "overt conflict over who will do housework is surprisingly rare." Yet, when researchers place couples in tasks dealing with the allocation of domestic labor, conflict is very evident. Pleck (1985) found that, when asked about it, one-third of the wives in his sample expressed the desire that husbands do more housework, and over one-half of the husbands sensed that wives expected more of them.

The inequity in the distribution of domestic labor (or the "benefits of marriage" as described by Allen and Walker [2000, p. 16]) leads men to strive to maintain the status quo and women to strive for change. This is analogous to the finding that the more traditional the division of household labor, the higher the marital satisfaction is among men, and the lower it is among women (Schwartz 1998). Commuri and Gentry (2000) cite several studies as to how men and women use different strategies to resolve conflict. Many of these studies reflect an attempt by men to use conflict-avoidance strategies, which involves being more passive, calm, and rational, whereas women are noted as being more aggressive, confronting, and demanding. These findings are consistent with a gender perspective that suggests that those in power will do less to rock the boat in order to maintain their privileged status.

Ball, Cowan, and Cowan (1995) found three phases of negotiation concerning a self-selected problem concerning the division of family labor. Both spouses (78% of husbands; 85% of wives) agreed that wives were more active during the initial mobilization phase. There was also agreement (78% for both sexes) that the husband had the "final say" over whether a decision was reached in the third phase, that of outcome determination. However, in the second phase, each spouse (85% of husbands, 78% of wives) singled himself/herself as having the most influence in the way his/her interaction was structured. In particular, it was found that men and women differed with respect to the meaning of keeping their problem-solving discussions "focused." In their accounts, 81% of the men and 67% of the women saw themselves as the one who contributed more to "focusing" their problem talk. Most men defined "focus" as the ability to stay on the topic originally raised, whereas most women described "focusing in" on the real issues and getting to the bottom of things.

Is Conflict Prevalent?

Some evidence suggests that most married couples disagree about issues concerning sex, children, money, in-laws, household duties and responsibilities (Worthington 1991). DeVault (1997), however, noted that there is relatively little evidence of overt family conflict over household production issues. She further inferred that what conflict was observed may have been induced at least in part by intrusive researchers. Confrontive scenarios are largely inconsistent with actual family processes. Sillars and Kalblesch (1988) concluded that explicit decision making occurs in families only when implicit adjustment does not occur smoothly. Highly implicit transactions are more common in more homogeneous and stable relationships where shared experiences fill in considerable taken-for-granted meaning.

Despite research frameworks likely to induce conflict in husband/wife consumer decisions, there is not a rich body of evidence to indicate that such conflict exists. The researcher-imposed search for conflict may be in part due to a failure to consider decision history, a concern with the broader perspective of family decisions and not just one purchase task (Corfman and Lehmann 1987). Equity may be very unlikely to occur in every purchase decision; however, marriages are unlikely to continue if there is no semblance of equity in purchases over time.

Further, as Park (1982) and Sillars and Kalbflesch (1987) noted, there is reluctance to challenge family harmony through explicit argumentation. Sillars and Kalbflesch (1987) noted that some purchases result from "silent agreements," and that these agreements often reflect standards learned from reference groups and, thus, from implicit gendered-roles. Rather than a "he said/she said" scenario that could conceivably be observed by a researcher, what may exist is a "he/she does, she/he accepts" reality that is unobservable possibly even to the spouses involved. Understanding specifically why and which products and decisions are susceptible to silent agreements can offer valuable insight into the consumer decision-making process.


Work in sociology has progressed beyond the simplistic tone of that in consumer research ("who does what") to shed light on the reasons why the male/female divisions of domestic labor have changed so little, despite the huge change in the gendered role of paid work.

In her in-depth study of 60 couples in the Netherlands, Komter (1989) found that few wives attempted to change their relationships in a clear and direct (and presumably observable) manner. She further noted (p. 196) that the fact that few conflicts were reported is not necessarily an indication of contentment with the existing situation. A spouse may see that further quarreling is pointless because he/she will lose in any case. Or, a spouse may anticipate sanctions that might ensue if he/she were to start a dispute. Komter (1989) concluded that the conflicts that did arise were not very effective in producing desired changes.

One reason that spouses find reasonable levels of fairness is that they have very different "emics" concerning several key issues. What is "equitable" might be seen quite differently by family members. For example, in the Ball et al. (1995) study discussed earlier, both husbands and wives may be content with the second phase of the negotiation process because they saw themselves as being more influential. Similarly, Ferree (1990) argues that, while resource models tend to see housework as an unmitigated "bad" that anyone with power would avoid doing, from a gender perspective, doing housework may be understood as an expression of love and care. Thompson and Walker (1989, p. 859) note that many women view the home as the woman’s dominio, and they may be reluctant to share control over the one domain in which they have power. Thus, for marital conflict, more important than actual spousal time discrepancies are differences among women in their feelings about housework and their perceptions of the division of labor as fair or not (Blaire 1993). Understanding the gendered meanings attached to domestic and paid work is important in determining fairness (Twiggs et al. 1999; Wilkie, Ferree, and Ratcliff 1998).

Thompson (1991) suggests that to understand women’s sense of fairness, researchers need to consider (a) valued outcomes other than time and tasks, (b) between- and within-gender comparison referents, and (c) gender-specific justifications for men’s small contribution to family work. First, she includes interpersonal outcomes of family work rather than labor time and tasks as valued outcomes, suggesting that relationship outcomes such as care are more important than task outcomes. Second, concerning comparison referents, Thompson (1991) suggests that women make within-gender comparisons when they judge the fairness of family work and also make within-gender comparisons of their husbands. This indicates that satisfaction with the relationship is influenced to a greater extent by the perception of being better off than same-sex others than by the perception of being equally well off with the partner. Finally, Thompson (1991) suggests that women experience a strong sense of injustice when they find justifications unacceptable for the reasons and circumstances underlying their husbands’ failures to contribute more to family work. Hawkins et al. (1995) found evidence that deciding together how things would be divided is an indicator of wives’ perceptions of fairness.

Steil and Weltman (1991) found that, even when wives earn more, there is pervasive evidence that both spouses define the man as the primary provider. Rosen (1987) found that working class wives and husbands agreed that husbands are the primary providers for their families, largely due to the notion that a man’s pride and manhood is based upon that role. One way that couples try to maintain the image of wives as secondary providers is to use husbands’ salaries for the essentials and wives’ salaries for extras.

Commuri (2001) found similar results in a study of wives who make at least $10,000 money than her spouse. Specifically, he found that such couples have a tendency toward "normalcy," in that they want to establish that their marriages were not unlike anyone else’s. The husband played the traditional male role in public, picking up dinner checks and, in one case, paying the mortgage by mail from his account after his wife deposited that amount for him. Most couples had three accounts: his, hers, and the joint one. The majority of the funds in the joint account came from the wife’s salary, and this account was used for family obligations and activities such as house payments, saving for education costs for the children, and vacations. One example of how "traditional gender" was played among these couples was through gift-giving. The majority of the expensive gifts in the household went from the man to the woman, though they were most often purchased using funds from the joint account. Thus, equity was achieved (the person contributing the most got the most), but in a manner that prevented harm to the male ego. Understanding the full nature and expanse of decisions used to preserve traditional gender can help marketers interested in establishing gender equality. For example, creating images of the woman paying for the dinner check can help alleviate embedded notions of gender.

Meaning of Leisure

A second issue that apparently has very different emics across the sexes is "leisure." Prior to 1982, researchers did not acknowledge these differences because it was assumed "that leisure was leisure and what applied to males also applied to females" (Henderson 1990, p. 230). Mn see leisure being constrained by the level of paid work whereas women, even those in the work force, see leisure as being constrained by domestic labor responsibilities (Firestone and Shelton 1994). This is known as the "double day" or the notion that women are still the primary caretakers of the household irrespective of outside work duties. Henderson (1996) suggests that the incentive for leisure among workingmen is more of a motivator than it is for working women because working women must contend with housework first. Thus, women are less likely to see a work/leisure dichotomy, and are likely to combine "leisure" with family activities (Henderson 1990). Women’s leisure activities (such as crafts, sewing, knitting, gardening, reading, cooking, and crocheting) are often associated with short time blocks that fit with domestic labor, whereas men’s leisure, such as golf, hunting, or fishing, is usually associated with much longer time blocks. Women’s leisure may be found in the community or time spent with family, and is perceived to be less free from constraints, while men’s leisure is more self-involving and free of constraints. Addressing the underlying gender constraints involved in golf, hunting, and other traditionally male-dominated leisure pursuits can create opportunities for marketers as well as new topics for consumer research.

While domestic labor is not leisure, there are positive elements to it. Women’s family work conditions are such that they are unsupervised and rarely criticized, under their own planning and control, and have to meet only their own standards (Allen and Walker 2000). This is not true in all domestic domains; for example, leisure is one aspect of women’s lives that is closely monitored (Henderson 1990), as it is often seen as a patriarchal pursuit. On the other hand, housework is worrisome, tiresome, menial, repetitive, isolating, unfinished, inescapable, and often unappreciated (Allen and Walker 2000; Berheide 1984). When men "help" out, they usually do so by selecting some of the nicer household tasks such as playing with children while wives prepare meals or clean up. A biased selection of tasks may also be observed with women, as DeVault (1997) noted that the flexible definition of "domestic labor" allows women to avoid some tasks that are disliked.


Conflict is not a highly sought goal for most people, especially those in a relationship based on love. We see the need for more research based on the goal of investigating how conflict over consumer issues, including household production, is suppressed, rather than on how conflicts are resolved. More specifically, we see the need to continue to examine why conflict is suppressed, which types of couples are most susceptible to this behavior, and what kinds of purchase decisions or household issues are most likely to be suppressed. Based on our review, it might appear that men are more likely to suppress conflict because they have an interest in maintaining the status quo, but it is not clear in which cases or types of decisions this behavior might be more likely.

Another area worthy of study is looking at trends in decision making and predicting how under conditions of supposed egalitarianism what purchases will be made by which partner. Our review indicates that with couples where the wife is a high-income earner or makes more than the husband, conventional notions of gender are still upheld; the husband still protects his ego by playing the provider role, while the wife often plays the traditional role of nurturer and the primary caregiver. These results are puzzling given the fact that one would expect husbands in these arrangements to be predisposed to being open-minded and thus more susceptible to egalitarianism. Therefore, it would be interesting to determine which marital partner has more influence in sustaining gendered relations. The gender perspective (see Risan 1998) might predict that the one in power, which in patriarchal societies is the man, would have more interest in sustaining hegemony. However, future analysis might reveal that women, more than men, desire "normalcy," which leads to the traditional purchasing behaviors noted by Commuri (2001). In other words, it would be valuable for marketers to know whether maintaining a man’s "masculinity" is more important to wives or to husbands. Is the wife thinking that she is doing a favor for her husband by protecting his manhood when in actuality the man is far removed from such feelings?

Another area needing further work is in the area of "peer marriages" or those marriages where partners are social equals, have careers, share equal responsibility for finances and other decision making, and where the husband assumes far greater responsibility for child-rearing (Schwartz 1998). Will the influence of such marriages change the overall nature of purchasing behavior among all couples or will traditional norms continue? Will such marriages, which are on the rise, change the gendered meaning of housework? Will such marriages neutralize gendered relations, which are so prevalent and powerful within the family?

As consumer researchers, we also have an obligation to investigate which men in particular are likely to become involved or excel in peer marriages or exhibit behavior that is consistent with egalitarianism. For example, it might be hypothesized that men coming from single-parent households are more likely to progress through gendered hierarchies (Twiggs et al. 1999). Similarly, it might be hypothesized that men waiting longer to get married or those getting remarried might be more predisposed to egalitarianism and therefore more likely to cross the gendered boundaries.

The focus of this paper has been on how spouses have done and do gender now. A broadened focus is needed that also investigates how the younger generation is seeing "gender," as Risman (1998) referred to the family as a "gender factory." John’s (1999) systematic review of consumer socialization in the family does not delve into issues of learning gender, no doubt in response to the lack of work in consumer research dealing with the development of gender structures among the young. Such a literature should exist. For example, what influences will the increase in female participation in sports (usually with the explicit support of family members) have in terms of future gendered roles in the family?

Many family studies have relied on large-scale secondary data bases involving thousands of households, investigating the division of labor for preparing meals, washing dishes and meal cleanup, cleaning the house, child care, and shopping. Twiggs et al. (1999) note most of the quantitative studies in this area focus on the amount of domestic work done by men and women rather than the kinds of work they do. Focusing on the latter will tell a more complete picture of what is considered gender appropriate tasks, whether barriers are being crossed, and perhaps what trends to expect in the future. Further, as noted earlier, there is need to look beyond the reported behavior to see who has the planning responsibilities, as that individual may be more likely to be the actual decider and/or purchaser.

Most family research has investigated the views of only one spouse or, at best, the perspectives of two spouses measured independently. Kenny and Acitelli (1989, p. 51) noted "much of supposedly dyadic research is really the study of individual processes." Future research needs to capture the interactions of at least the spouses, and hopefully of the entire household. Further, research should also try to capture the interface of the family with institutions in order to understand better the sanctions faced when gender is done "inappropriately" according to institutional standards.

Overall, the need for family research in Consumer Behavior is on the rise due to the dramatic shifts of family meaning and unit of analysis. While great change in some purchase and household behaviors is being experienced, other domains are seeing relatively little change. The gender perspective (see Risman 1998) used in sociology is just one way researchers in Marketing can gain a better grasp of why some things are changing in this area and others are not. Family research in these areas has never been needed more.


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James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska
Lee Phillip McGinnis, Washburn University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30 | 2003

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