When looking at power relationships within families there are a number of fairly-obvious areas – such as domestic labour and violence (both physical and sexual) – that tend to receive most of the critical focus at A-level. While not suggesting this “dark side of the family” is somehow unimportant, insignificant or unworthy of so much attention, an over-concentration on these “manifest and obvious” displays of power can result in other, perhaps more-subtle, examples of power imbalances being overlooked. This is particularly the case where power relationships become a little more complicated, messy and not so clearly bound-up in relations of individual, physical, domination and subordination.
One such area relates to work and family relocation for dual-earner families where decisions have to be made about whose work has the greatest priority when, for example, the family needs to move. Hardill (2003), for example, found women were more likely to be the ‘trailing spouse’ in this relationship: male occupations had greater priority and the family relocated to follow male employment patterns.
While this type of research is interesting and suggestive, a further question to consider is whether these types of decision-making are indicative of greater male status and higher levels of power within the family group, rather than simply reflecting male-female economic differences in wider society.
In other words, although research consistently shows that when families relocate it’s mainly to follow male employment, unanswered questions here, Sorenson and Dahl (2016) suggest, are whether this difference can be explained as:
1. A rational response to the labour market.
2. A maximisation of household income.
3. The outcome of biased beliefs about gender roles and the relative importance of husbands’ versus wives’ employment.
These questions are important because how they’re answered can tell us something about gendered power relationships within the family.
The first two questions, for example, suggest relocation decisions that favour male over female employment may have little or nothing to do with explicit power differences; such decisions simply reflect “economic realities” that generally impact on family relationships regardless of the individual relationship between each partner.
• If relocation to follow male employment is simply a “rational response to the labour market” (the idea, for example, families may have to relocate in response to changes in the availability of different kinds of paid work) then such decisions may simply be logical calculation based on what is “economically advantageous” for the whole group.
• Similarly, if family relocation merely reflects a desire to “maximise household income” (men generally have better career prospects and earn more money), this too has little or no relationship to differences in power relationships within the family group.
• If, however, relocation decisions are based on gendered beliefs about family roles and the greater importance that should be given to male employment (the traditional “breadwinner vs. care-giver” distinction), this has very different implications.
While the former simply represent rationale calculations of economic worth or a response to wider forms of gender discrimination and power imbalances that have little or nothing to do directly with individual power relationships between family members, the latter suggests power relationships may be both ingrained within family relationships and work in ways that advantage and disadvantage different family members.
Sorenson and Dahl’s research, based on an analysis of Danish society, is instructive here because it concludes two things:
1. There existed a “motherhood penalty” whereby “couples with young children placed less weight on the wife’s potential earnings”. This, they argue, suggests “the presence of small children increases the salience of the wife’s role as a caretaker and of the husband’s role as an income provider”.
2. Where the female partner was exposed to “traditional gender roles” as part of their childhood socialisation they were much more likely to devalue their economic contribution to the family group. In these cases the family group was much more likely to relocate to follow male, rather than female, employment.
For couple’s where the wife’s parents – but crucially not the husband’s – practiced greater gender equality, they were likely to weight their potential income gains from family relocation equally. That is, the family were just as likely to relocate to follow the wife’s employment as that of the husband.
This research suggests, therefore, that not only are “gender roles – at least in Denmark – passed down from parents to daughters” but also that relocation decisions clearly reflect power differences in family relationships.
A final point to note, given that the research focused only on Denmark, is the extent to which it might be generalisable to other societies: Western (such as Britain or America), Asian (such as Malaysia, India, Pakistan or China), Middle-Eastern (such as Saudi Arabia) and the like.
In this respect Sorenson and Dahl argue that “One would probably expect larger diﬀerences in other countries, as Denmark – relative to the rest of the world – has relatively low levels of gender segregation and gender inequality”.
Hardill, Irene (2003) “A tale of two nations? Juggling work and home in the new economy”: London School of Economics
Sorenson, Olav and Dahl, Michael (2016) “Geography, Joint Choices, and the Reproduction of Gender Inequality”: SAGE