Cross Cultural Patterning of Activities Based on Gender

At the same time, scholars from a range of perspectives (e.g., Brown, 1970; Burton, Brudner, & White, 1977) note that women's duties, particularly as mothers but also as homemakers, require them to perform work that can be easily begun and abandoned, that is relatively routine, and that can be combined with childcare. However, while men's work may take them further afield, it too will frequently be embedded in domestic life and general routine (e.g., chopping wood, clearing, plowing, or planting fields, and building houses or outbuildings).

We might systematize some explanations offered for the persistence of "men's work" and "women's work," even when activities take place in a variety of settings. Some activities tend to be assigned repeatedly to one or the other gender, as can be seen in table 1. Often the determining factor appears to be strength or physical prowess ("strength theory"; see Murdock & Provost, 1973). Men are certainly more efficient at plowing, clearing land, or

Table 1. Cross-Cultural Patterning of Gender Assignments in Subsistence/Economic Activities

Nearly always

Type of activity

Nearly always male

Usually male

Either gender or both

Usually female



Hunt and trap large


Collect shellfish

Gather wild plants


and small animals

Herd large animals Collect wild honey Clear land and prepare soil for planting

Care for small animals Plant crops Tend crops Harvest crops Milk animals Preserve meats and fish


Butcher animals

Care for children

Care for infants

subsistence and



Prepare vegetable foods, dairy products, drinks

lifting heavy objects—activities that they are far more likely to specialize in. Yet there is little strength required in the collection of honey or in trapping small animals, suggesting that this theory is incomplete.

Expendability theory that makes a similar argument, bolstered by sociobiology: "... men, rather than women, will tend to do the dangerous work in a society because men are more expendable, because the loss of men is less disadvantageous reproductively than the loss of women." (Ember & Ember, 1996, p. 164). If men specialize in the heavy and physically demanding work of plowing or hunting, work that is also dangerous, their loss to society will not be as harmful as that of women, who can still reproduce as long as they have access to some men (Mukhopadhyay & Higgins, 1988, p. 473).

Women's role as mothers probably does play some role in the activities they pursue; such activities are likely, as noted earlier, to be easily combined with childcare. Compatibility theory suggests that women specialize in activities that essentially do not interfere with infant care. In many societies, where infants and young toddlers nurse for lengthy periods and accompany their mothers everywhere, work must fit around the demands of infant care (Brown, 1970; see also Nerlove, 1974). Thus women remain near home, pursuing tasks that can be taken up and abandoned as childcare needs dictate. Such an explanation also suggests why men specialize in various forms of hunting, and even the collection of honey, as these activities could also be dangerous to an infant or young child (Hurtado, Hawkes, Hill, & Kaplan, 1985). At the same time, it does beg the question as to why women collect shellfish or tend and milk animals, activities that could be seen as similarly risky.

Compatibility theory and another line of argument, "economy of effort," share a further claim sometimes made regarding women's less frequent participation in commercial activities that they pursue in the home. "Economy-of-effort" theory suggests that specialization is a series of linked activities; men may, for example, specialize in woodworking and building because they clear fields, know how to work with wood, and understand its properties, and because the fields, the wood, and the location of the building are all near each other (Murdock & Provost, 1973; White, Burton, & Brudner, 1977; cf. Byrne, 1994). Both compatibility theory and economy-of-effort theory have been used to suggest that women are less likely to pursue commercial activities because, for example, men are more compatible with commercial work or the extension of their activities from subsistence to cash production is more easily made. However, there is suggestion that men compete with and even displace women when activities become commercially productive, a point taken up in more detail below.

Finally, if we accept that gender and activity are strongly linked, with many tasks assigned on the basis of one's gender, we must also examine how activities themselves can create or signal gender. As Murdock and Provost (1973) have noted, some tasks, such as cooking and heavy labor like plowing, are strongly gendered, with women nearly always performing the former and men the latter. Others may vary based on one's ability, inclination, or desire, or may vary from society to society. But the performance of those strongly linked to one's gender help to define one as male or female, as has been seen among some Native American societies. One's gender role can be manipulated or shifted if specific tasks are taken up or avoided (Callender & Kochems, 1983). Among a fairly wide range of such groups appropriate performance of a gender role—particularly through work performed and choice of dress—is a key part of one's gender identity (Blackwood, 1984). The female cross-gender role, where males adopt female behavior and dress (often called berdache in the literature) was widespread among native North Americans, including the Crow (Simms, 1903) and the Arapaho (Kroeber, 1902). Less well known are female-to-male cross-gender individuals—females who adopt the male role. While details differ culturally— some such individuals identify their role in childhood while others assume it in puberty—the overall pattern features individual learning and performing the tasks of the other gender and being socially recognized as a member of that gender. Detailed descriptions of this complex are given by Callender and Kochems (1983) and Blackwood (1984).

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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