Some sociologists see roles and relationships among couples as becoming more equal. However, there are a number of sociologists who are critical of this view. They argue that changes have taken place in gender roles and relationships within families. These changes suggest that attitudes towards gender roles have shifted, and increased participation by women in the labor market has led to more equality in modern family life.
Young and Willmott believe that the roles among couples are becoming more equal as they see a trend towards the symmetrical family.
In a study of families conducted in London, it was found that symmetrical families were more common among younger couples, those who were geographically and socially isolated, and the more affluent. Young and Willmott observed the rise of the symmetrical family as a result of major social changes that have occurred over the past century, including changes in women’s position, new technology, geographical mobility, and higher standards of living. Another sociologist who supports this view is Gershuny.
Gershuny found that men made more of an effort to do housework when their wives were employed full-time. He explains this trend towards equality in terms of gradual changes in values and parental role models. However, he also found that men still tend to take responsibility for different tasks. Similarly, Oriel Sullivan discovered an increase in the number of couples with an equal division of labor, and men were participating more in household tasks.
Sullivan and Gershuny share an optimistic view similar to Young and Willmott’s ‘march of progress’ perspective. However, some sociologists are critical of this view. Feminists, in particular, are more cautious about drawing such a conclusion. They highlight the persistent inequalities of power and control in modern family relationships. Ann Oakley criticizes Young and Willmott’s claim that the family is now symmetrical, arguing that their evidence is hardly convincing and their claims exaggerated.
During her research on housewives, the researcher found some evidence of husbands helping with household chores, but no indication of a trend towards symmetry. The dominant role for married women is still that of a housewife, according to her findings. Mary Boulton’s research supports Oakley’s conclusions. She argues that Young and Willmott overstate men’s contributions by focusing solely on the tasks involved in childcare rather than overall responsibilities. Similarly, Warde and Hetherington discovered that men would only perform routine ‘female’ tasks when their partners were not available to do so.
This further supports Oakley’s views. The functionalist Talcott Parsons argued that the family has a clear division of labor between couples, based on biological differences. According to him, women are naturally suited for the nurturing role (expressive role), which involves primary socialization of children and meeting the family’s emotional needs while being a full-time housewife.
On the other hand, men are suited for the provider role (instrumental role) which aims to protect and provide for their family financially. This division of labor benefits both men and women, their children, and society as a whole. The arguments that roles and relationships are becoming more equal have become stronger, as evidenced by Gershuny’s work. Ann Oakley and feminists who argue that things have not changed for many women are mistaken.