Are gender-equal relationships possible?

Wednesday November 14 2018

Can career men and women share domestic chores

Can career men and women share domestic chores with spouses? 

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If you want to start a heated debate, talk about gender equality in a marriage or a relationship.

For a society that has generally accepted that women and girls deserve equal rights and opportunities, it's a wonder we have a problem with these rights making their way into the home.

Even among the younger generation that grew up in the era of women's empowerment, with mothers who worked outside the home, girls in equal number in school, and more women in leadership positions than before, the idea that there could be gender equal relationships is still difficult to contend with.

In fact, what we see is an attempt to amalgamate two opposing paradigms – embracing women's empowerment, but only to the extent that it does not upset traditional gender norms. For instance, young men expect their future spouses to be educated and work (I am yet to meet a young man who expects to be the sole breadwinner). So there is a certain level of professional ambition that women are expected to have as well.

Juxtaposed with this, however, is the traditional expectation that women will continue to be the primary caregivers and homemakers. That after a day at the office or in the marketplace, she will come home and cook, clean and tend to her husband's and the children's needs, or at least oversee the domestic worker who plays this role.
You can see the dilemma, and how this inevitably creates untenable relationships. It creates a mentally and emotionally taxing reality for women and girls, who have to contend with the duality of expectation.

It also creates a society where individuals are constantly performing and have little room for genuine self-realisation and expression – men included.


The restrictive definition of masculinity is a stoic man who is valued only for his ability to build wealth and sire children. What we are inevitably creating are gendered straitjackets, stifled adults, and mental health stresses.

As difficult as it may seem, what needs to happen now is a reimagining of what fulfilling, thriving, heterosexual relationships could look like, for both parties. Imagine if you could create a template from scratch, what would it look like? How great would it be if you could decide freely what kind of personal world you want to live in?

Take caregiving, for example. Wouldn't it be great for children to grow up knowing that they can get their physical and emotional needs met by either parent? Many men today bemoan the fact that they never had an emotional bond with their fathers. In order not to perpetuate this cycle, men must play a very different role in the home, one that enables them to be a consistent presence, including emotionally, to their children.


What about decision making? Who wants to bear sole responsibility for every decision in a home? Bring both heads together and share decision-making, regardless of who brings in more income.

Imagine a world where no one is expected to have all the answers purely because of their gender. Issues can be discussed based on merit and mutual benefit, compassion and empathy, and not on some predetermined notion of gender superiority.

Women would no longer have to, for instance, obtain contraceptives in secret, because the conversation about family planning would have been had and a consensus reached, or the woman's choice respected.


There are ways that laws can help advance equality in relationships. For example, in South Africa, couples can legally decide before marriage how they will deal with assets and liabilities obtained prior to and during the marriage. In Sweden, men are entitled to a three-month paternity leave, and the couple can decide how they will divide the remaining 10 months of parental leave (yes, 10 months). That is, who will take leave and when, including the option of returning to work part-time, in order to maximise equal parental time with the child.

This rebalancing of the gender scales stands to positively impact gender equality in the broader society. If men are expected to take equal paternity leave, there will be less discrimination against women of reproductive age in the workplace, and a likely decrease in the gender pay gap over time.

There could also be a reduction in gender-based violence, which is a result of unequal relations between men and women, and traditional masculinity that encourages men to choose violence over other forms of self-expression.

If you could design your ideal relationship from scratch, where both you and your partner are equally valued, what would it look like?

The writer is a policy specialist in gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. She writes here in her own capacity.