Capitalism and inequality in domestic work

Often, explanations for the inequality between men and women in household chores focus solely on education and culture. Instead, we argue that the equal distribution of domestic work is constrained by characteristics of the capitalist mode of production, and that addressing inequality effectively requires understanding them.

Photo: Protest by the "Las Kellys" in Lanzarote, a feminized sector fighting for the improvement of their working conditions.

When trying to find the reasons for the unequal distribution of domestic work between men and women, it is common to fall into subjective explanations: it is considered that it is mainly the awareness of individuals in each group that sustains inequality (the sexist attitudes of men, the role of women as caregivers, etc.) and ultimately, its causes are attributed to what we assume shapes our personality: the education we have received. The solution to the problem, then, would involve creating new models of behavior, new educational curricula in schools, etc.

The error of these explanations lies in often overlooking how the set of social relations determines consciousness, or in other words, it is much truer to say that “we think according to how we live” than to say that “we live according to how we think.” From these perspectives, the solution to gender-related problems would consist of combating a system of values that we have inherited and that perpetuates over time, and that is relatively independent of the mode of production1.

However, when considering the unequal distribution of domestic work, we must recognize that the differences in personality, responsibility, or expectations between men and women, while crucial, are only part of the problem. Without placing domestic work within the capitalist mode of production, we will not understand the causes of inequality (and therefore, we will not be able to end it).

Domestic Work and Wage Labor

According to the latest Time Use Survey, in the Spanish state, women dedicate on average twice as much time to domestic work as men2. It is not possible to understand this difference without relating domestic work to wage labor.

Wages guarantee that the proletariat reproduces their living conditions as part of social reproduction (i.e., the reproduction of capitalist society). Therefore, wages revolve around the value of labor power, which essentially represents the value of the resources a worker needs to recover for the next day’s work. However, acquiring a set of commodities is not enough to guarantee social reproduction; in general, these commodities need to be transformed through additional work (cooking food, cleaning and maintaining the household, etc.).

This transformation of commodities acquired with wages into the necessary use-values for social reproduction primarily occurs within households3, under social relations that are different from those governing wage labor. It is the members of the household who decide and organize this work, which is what we know as domestic work and which generally exhibits substantial inequalities between men and women.

We must understand that the decision-making capacity of households regarding this distribution is limited by social conditions that transcend them, and these conditions contribute to reproducing inequality (and, in turn, certain consciousness that perpetuates it). Here, the devaluation of feminized work plays a fundamental role.

The Devaluation of Feminized Work

Let’s take the example of the incorporation of women into the labor market in the Spanish state. The increasing entry of women’s labor force into the market in the late 20th century happened in a devalued manner. During the Franco regime, subsidies were approved for the breadwinner based on whether they were married and the number of children they had, such as the so-called “Family Burdens Plus.” These subsidies were exclusively received by the husband, except under exceptional circumstances, and the marriage benefit would be lost if the wife worked4. As a result, the labor force participation rate for married women did not reach 10% between 1950 and 1970, while the rate for unmarried women fluctuated between 27% and 45%5.

These measures aimed to promote a specific family model and social consciousness, and for that purpose, it became more favorable for the family if only the husband worked. Consequently, women occupied lower-paid positions, especially when they were young, or they engaged in informal labor.

The attempt to introduce this “male family wage” failed. The increasing devaluation of labor power in general incentivized a greater incorporation of proletarian women into wage labor to supplement their husband’s salary (which, on the other hand, improved their social situation due to the autonomy and rights associated with having a job). Thus, the female labor force participation rate (i.e., the percentage of women employed or actively seeking employment) went from around 30% in 19776 to 54% between 2012 and 2023 (while the rate for men remained around 65% since 2002)7. In 40% of households where a couple composed of a man and a woman live together, both work, while in 16% only the man works8.

However, the labor power of women remains devalued. In 2020, the average hourly wage for men was €16.9, while for women, it was €15.29. What are the causes of this?

Firstly, there is the so-called horizontal segregation: women have occupations and participate in sectors where average wages are lower, such as certain professions in the service sector. There is also vertical segregation (women occupy positions with less responsibility) and the type of work schedule: it still happens that women tend to reduce their working hours due to the demands of child-rearing or caring for dependents10.

Both causes intertwine characteristics of the capitalist mode of production with roles and expectations that this mode of production supports and promotes.

Regarding horizontal segregation, we must delve deeper into the problem beyond the idea that “those professions are paid less because women do them.” Many of the professions predominantly occupied by women (hospitality and personal services, healthcare, education, etc.) rely more on variable capital (human labor power) than on fixed capital (machinery), so they are not profitable without a more intense exploitation of labor power than in other sectors of production. Furthermore, women have historically faced more difficulties in organizing labor struggles, which affects their working conditions in the present. Why do women mainly occupy these sectors and not others? Causes and effects are intertwined here, but undoubtedly, aspects such as gender-differentiated socialization, the historical feminization of certain jobs, or their compatibility with household responsibilities are of importance.

As for vertical segregation (las mujeres ocupan puestos con menos responsabilidad) y el tipo de jornada: sigue ocurriendo que las mujeres suelen ser quienes reducen su jornada ante las exigencias de la crianza o el cuidado de personas dependientes10.

En ambas causas se interrelacionan características propias del modo de producción capitalista con roles y expectativas que este modo de producción sostiene y promueve.

Sobre la segregación horizontal, debemos desgranar el problema más allá de la idea de “en esos oficios pagan menos porque los hacen mujeres”. Muchas de las profesiones que ocupan más las mujeres (restauración y servicios personales, sanidad, educación…) dependen más del capital variable (la fuerza de trabajo humana) que del capital fijo (la maquinaria), por lo que no son rentables sin una explotación de la fuerza de trabajo más intensa que en otros sectores de la producción. Además, las mujeres han tenido históricamente más dificultades para organizarse en lucha sindical, lo que afecta a sus condiciones de trabajo en el presente. ¿Por qué las mujeres ocupan principalmente esos sectores y no otros? Aquí se enmarañan causas y efectos, pero sin duda tienen importancia aspectos como la socialización diferenciada por género, la feminización histórica de ciertos trabajos o su compatibilidad con las responsabilidades en el hogar.

En cuanto a la segregación vertical y el tipo de jornada, los miembros de una familia tienen un margen limitado de decisión sobre quién reduce su jornada laboral cuando el trabajo doméstico se vuelve incompatible con ella. Esto, a su vez, refuerza los roles existentes, y tiene como resultado que las competencias necesarias para realizar estas tareas estén más premiadas (y, así, más presentes) en las mujeres a lo largo de su socialización. Desarrollaremos este punto a continuación, hablando de la importancia que tiene la apropiación individual del salario.

La apropiación individual del salario

Aunque el conjunto de salarios de un hogar constituye el «salario familiar», estos salarios se reciben individualmente. La consecuencia de esto es que un reparto equitativo del trabajo entre una persona especializada en el trabajo doméstico y otra en el asalariado no es un reparto neutral.

Si en una pareja heterosexual es la mujer quien trabaja menos horas y/o por menos sueldo, aunque exista una combinación igualitaria de la suma de trabajo asalariado y trabajo doméstico (por ejemplo, que ambos dediquen nueve horas diarias a la suma de ambos), el hombre, que dedica más tiempo al trabajo remunerado, tendrá una posición de ventaja: La apropiación individual del salario le da más capacidad para imponer su voluntad en la familia, y más autonomía en caso de que la pareja se separe11.

Por supuesto, una pareja puede esforzarse conscientemente en que los efectos de esa posición de ventaja no se manifiesten, pero no por ello deja de existir. Además, el control consciente del reparto del trabajo doméstico no es tan sencillo como parece. Al contrario que, por ejemplo, el trabajo asalariado en una industria, el trabajo doméstico tiene límites difusos con otras actividades, y en muchas fases de la crianza tiene más que ver con estar disponible que con dedicarse directamente a una tarea concreta. Por eso tiende a invisibilizarse: es difícil de medir, comparar y valorar en los mismos términos que el trabajo asalariado.

La devaluación de la fuerza de trabajo feminizada determina las relaciones de género en el hogar, y promueve comportamientos que afianzan la desigualdad. La desigualdad se sostiene sobre decisiones que pueden ser en apariencia igualitarias o responder a mero criterio económico (que quien menos cobra por hora sea quien reduzca su jornada laboral por la crianza, que el trabajo doméstico y el asalariado se repartan equitativamente aunque la proporción de horas dedicada a uno o a otro no sea la misma…). Estas decisiones están limitadas por las características del modo de producción capitalista, y sus consecuencias se manifiestan en la socialización de hombres y mujeres y en las jerarquías que aparecen en los hogares.

La socialización del trabajo doméstico

El reparto igualitario del trabajo doméstico pasa por sacarlo de las condiciones rudimentarias de los hogares e incorporarlo a la producción social, donde podrá ser valorado en los mismos términos que el resto del trabajo que contribuye a la reproducción de la sociedad, y además beneficiarse de los rendimientos crecientes de escala (es más eficiente la cocina de un comedor social que las cocinas aisladas de decenas de hogares).

¿Puede ocurrir esto en el modo de producción capitalista? En su constante expansión en busca de nuevos nichos de mercado, existen tendencias en el capitalismo que reducen la carga de trabajo doméstico a través de mercancías con ese fin. La comida precocinada o de fácil elaboración es un ejemplo de esto.

De hecho, la reducción de la brecha entre hombres y mujeres en la dedicación al trabajo doméstico, observada comparando las dos oleadas de la Encuesta de Empleo del Tiempo (2002-2003 y 2009-2010), se debe a que los hogares (y, en especial, las mujeres) le dedican menos tiempo en general. Por ejemplo, encontramos que el total de la población dedica diariamente a cocinar 16 minutos menos en promedio en 2009-2010 de los que dedicaba en 2002-2003.12

No obstante, no existe ningún incentivo en el modo de producción capitalista para que desaparezca la devaluación de la fuerza de trabajo de ciertos sectores del proletariado (en este caso, las mujeres proletarias) y, además, los únicos incentivos para «socializar» el trabajo doméstico a través del mercado se deben a búsquedas erráticas de plusganancia, que pueden ocurrir o no. Los avances que se puedan dar en el capitalismo nunca son universales, sino que se restringen a estratos sociales superiores.

Por tanto, no podemos abordar la desigualdad en el trabajo doméstico como si fuera la educación de forma aislada lo que la causa. La educación (o, mejor dicho, la socialización) ocurre inserta en el conjunto de las relaciones sociales, y el modo de producción impone limitaciones ineludibles. Sólo en el socialismo, gracias al control consciente de la producción social, será posible crear condiciones que garanticen una verdadera socialización del trabajo doméstico y, con ella, una situación más favorable para que el conjunto de las relaciones sociales (y aquí está también la educación) den lugar a nuevas conciencias.

(women hold positions with less responsibility) and the type of schedule: it still happens that women tend to reduce their working hours due to the demands of childcare or the care of dependents10.

In both causes, characteristics inherent to the capitalist mode of production interrelate with roles and expectations that this mode of production supports and promotes.

Regarding horizontal segregation, we must delve deeper into the problem beyond the idea that “these jobs pay less because women do them.” Many of the professions predominantly occupied by women (such as catering and personal services, healthcare, education, etc.) rely more on variable capital (human labor) than fixed capital (machinery). Therefore, they are not profitable without a more intense exploitation of labor than in other sectors of production. Additionally, women have historically faced more difficulties in organizing labor unions, which affects their working conditions today. Why do women primarily occupy these sectors and not others? Causes and effects intertwine here, but aspects such as gender-differentiated socialization, the historical feminization of certain jobs, and their compatibility with household responsibilities undoubtedly play a significant role.

Regarding vertical segregation and the type of schedule, family members have limited decision-making power when it comes to reducing their working hours when household chores become incompatible with their jobs. This, in turn, reinforces existing roles and results in the necessary skills for these tasks being more valued (and therefore more prevalent) in women throughout their socialization. We will further develop this point by discussing the importance of individual salary appropriation.

Individual Salary Appropriation

Although the combined salaries of a household constitute the “family income,” these salaries are received individually. The consequence of this is that an equitable distribution of work between a person specialized in domestic work and another in wage labor is not a neutral distribution.

If, in a heterosexual couple, the woman works fewer hours and/or earns less income, even if there is an equal combination of the total hours spent on wage labor and domestic work (for example, both individuals dedicating nine hours per day to the total), the man, who devotes more time to paid work, will have an advantageous position. Individual salary appropriation gives him more capacity to impose his will within the family and more autonomy in the event of separation11.

Of course, a couple can consciously make efforts to prevent the effects of this advantageous position from manifesting, but that does not mean it ceases to exist. Furthermore, conscious control of the distribution of domestic work is not as straightforward as it may seem. Unlike wage labor in an industry, domestic work has blurred boundaries with other activities, and during many stages of childcare, it is more about being available than focusing on a specific task. As a result, it tends to be invisible: it is difficult to measure, compare, and evaluate using the same terms as wage labor.

The devaluation of feminized labor determines gender relations within the household and promotes behaviors that reinforce inequality. Inequality is sustained by decisions that may appear egalitarian or be driven purely by economic criteria (such as having the person with the lower hourly wage reduce their working hours for childcare, or distributing domestic and wage labor equally even if the proportion of hours dedicated to each is not the same…). These decisions are constrained by the characteristics of the capitalist mode of production, and their consequences manifest in the socialization of men and women and the hierarchies that emerge within households.

Socialization of Domestic Work

Achieving an equitable distribution of domestic work requires moving it out of the rudimentary conditions of households and incorporating it into social production, where it can be valued on par with other work that contributes to the reproduction of society. Additionally, it can benefit from increasing economies of scale (a communal kitchen in a social dining facility is more efficient than individual kitchens in dozens of households).

Can this happen within the capitalist mode of production? In its constant expansion in search of new market niches, capitalism exhibits trends that reduce the burden of domestic work through goods specifically designed for that purpose. Pre-cooked or easily prepared food is an example of this.

In fact, the reduction of the gap between men and women in terms of time dedicated to domestic work, as observed when comparing the two waves of the Time Use Survey (2002-2003 and 2009-2010), is due to households (especially women) devoting less time to it overall. For instance, it was found that the total population spent an average of 16 minutes less daily on cooking in 2009-2010 compared to 2002-200312.

However, there is no incentive within the capitalist mode of production for the devaluation of labor in certain sectors of the proletariat (in this case, proletarian women) to disappear. Furthermore, the only incentives for “socializing” domestic work through the market stem from erratic quests for surplus profit, which may or may not occur. Advances that can be made within capitalism are never universal but rather restricted to higher social strata.

Therefore, we cannot approach inequality in domestic work as if it were solely caused by education in isolation. Education (or, more precisely, socialization) is embedded within the context of social relations, and the mode of production imposes inevitable limitations. Only in socialism, through conscious control of social production, will it be possible to create conditions that guarantee a true socialization of domestic work and, with it, a more favorable situation for the entirety of social relations (including education) to give rise to new consciousness.

1About this topic:
2National Institute of Statistics (2010). Time Use Survey 2009-2010. At a quick glance, it is observed that women dedicate an average of 4:07 hours to activities under the heading “Home and family”, while men dedicate an average of 1:54 hours.
3 We must bear in mind that domestic work is not the only thing that reproduces the workforce, and it is by no means the only thing that guarantees social reproduction. A large part of the service sector, such as health or education, plays a fundamental role in this.
4 García González, G. (2021). Work, family and social security in the first Francoism: the family burden bonus. IUSLabor. Labor Law Analysis Magazine, (3), 206-241.
5 De Miguel, A. (1975). The feminization of the workforce. Spanish Public Opinion Journal, (40/41), 31-51.
6 Lacuesta Gabarain, A. and Cuadrado Salinas, P. (2007). Recent evolution of the activity rate of the Spanish economy and future challenges. Economic bulletin (Bank of Spain), December 2007, 67-75.
7 National Institute of Statistics. Active Population Survey.
8 National Institute of Statistics. Active Population Survey, first quarter of 2023. In 8% of these couples, only the woman works, and in 34% neither of the two works (data have not been broken down by age, so this percentage includes a good part of the retired couples).
9National Institute of Statistics. Annual Salary Structure Survey.
10 22% of employed women are part-time, compared to 7% of men. Around 50% of both groups report that the reason for this type of shift is that they cannot find a full-time job, but 16% of women (compared to 3% of men), indicate as the cause of their part-time shift the care of children or dependent people. Source: National Institute of Statistics. Active Population Survey, fourth quarter of 2022.
11In addition to this last point, it is only more common for women to take on part-time jobs due to the time committed to caring for minors or dependents, but they form households alone with their children to a greater extent than men: 81% of adults who live only with their children are women (so-called single-mother households). This type of household has the highest risk of poverty rate (39%, compared to 21% of the general population). Source: National Institute of Statistics. Living Conditions Survey 2021.
12Moreno-Colom, S., Ajenjo Cosp, M., and Borrás Català, V. (2018). The masculinization of time dedicated to routine domestic work. REIS: Spanish journal of sociological research, (163), 41-58.

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