“Man Must Provide; Woman Must Nurture”: The Problem with the Gendered Division of Labour

Man must provide; woman must nurture.

Historically, this notion has been taken for granted. In a household, the man is by default the primary breadwinner, while the woman is primarily responsible for domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning. But if you really think about it, why should responsibilities be distributed across gender lines in this way? Cooking, cleaning, and making money are all skills that every human needs for survival. As far as I know, women are not born with a cooking and cleaning gene, and men are not born with a money-making gene. So why does society engage in this gendered division of labour?

I must say that I’ve evolved a lot in my feminist thinking. At some point, I used to resist cooking because I was trying to fight against the social norm that dictates that women must cook. But as I grow older, I realise that there is nothing wrong with a woman cooking – as long as the reason she’s cooking is because she wants to, and not because she is a woman. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said something that really resonates with me:

Never ever accept “because you are a woman” as a reason for doing or not doing anything.

It only makes sense for both boys and girls to learn how to clean and at least cook some basic things. But in our “wisdom”, we largely relegate cleaning and especially cooking to women. Worse still, while it is now becoming acceptable for women to work and contribute to household bills, the acceptability of men getting involved in domestic chores has been slower. So it appears that we now do women an even greater disservice. Not only must they work and contribute to the household bills, but they must also cook and clean after work. With these numerous responsibilities, is it any surprise that men dominate leadership positions across both public and private sectors?

I’m not saying it is wrong for women to do all the cooking and cleaning, or it is wrong for men to foot all the bills. I used to think anyone who wanted to be a housewife had been brainwashed by the patriarchy. But I don’t think so anymore. It’s fine if you want to be a housewife, as long as it’s your choice, and not an obligation you feel you have to meet to be a good woman. In fact, housewives do important work, and it is a testament to patriarchy that the work they do is so undervalued. It is also a testament to patriarchy that the word “housewife” sounds normal, but the word “househusband” sounds very awkward.

If having a housewife or househusband – or, to be gender neutral, homemaker – works for your household, all well and good. What I have a problem with, however, is society dictating how these responsibilities should be shared. And we usually do this from a young age – we teach our daughters how to cook but we don’t teach our sons. So obviously when they get married, the responsibility of cooking necessarily falls on the wife even if she doesn’t want to cook.

If we teach our sons and daughters how to cook, and we encourage our sons and daughters to be ambitious, when they are older and get married, they can decide how they want to share responsibilities within their household in a way that works best for them. For household A, the man might foot all the bills while the woman might do all the domestic chores. For household B, the woman might foot all the bills while the man does all the domestic chores. Households C to N might choose any mixture in between the extremes of households A and B.

The point is that the division of labour should not be based on gender, but on what works best for that particular household. For us to break down the gendered division of labour, we need to start from the way we bring up our children. In turn, this should contribute to the dismantling of those harmful gender stereotypes that hold people back.

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2 thoughts on ““Man Must Provide; Woman Must Nurture”: The Problem with the Gendered Division of Labour

  1. What fascinates me about those who openly advocate this division of labor as a norm often seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. They typically embrace all the developments of modernization that have made economic roles more fluid, but then want to reserve that for men. The gender-based division of labor you see in domestic scale societies is one in which both men and women engage in a limited range of possibilities. If all the women are cooking and cleaning (and gardening) all the men are hunting and/or heavy lifting on the farm. In modern societies we see an endless range of possible economic roles, but some folks want to reserve all but 1 for the men.


  2. Impressive and thought-provoking Rukky! I clicked because of the headline. In today’s world, it’s my personal belief that both genders must learn the best of both worlds but, when it comes to nurturing, I do not limit this to cooking or cleaning.

    God has biologically endowed women with nurturing traits that help kids grow strong


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