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Sexual Division of Labor

Updated on September 9, 2013

The division of labor depending upon gender shows both equality and inequality within the various societies that this division is seen. In this essay I will examine, compare and contrast the men and women of the hunter-gatherer society and the plow cultivation society, also referred to in this article as intensive agricultural. I will focus upon the strength theory, compatibility-with-child-care-theory, and the expendability theory as well as the technology available to each society that creates the division of labor. It is these theories and the technology that allows for common factors amongst these two societies as well as contrasting aspects of their daily lives and the division of labor.

Hunter-Gatherer Societies

In the hunter-gatherer society, men primarily hunt while women are responsible for gathering roots, berries, and other edible flora. This is mainly due to the strength theory as well as the compatibility-with-child-care theory. The strength theory suggests that “the greater strength of males, and their superior capacity to mobilize strength in quick burst of energy, has commonly been cited as the reason for the universal or near-universal patterns in the gender division of labor.” (Ember & Ember, 1993, pg. 288) The compatible-with-child-care theory states “women’s tasks may be those that do not take them far from home for long periods, that do not place children in potential danger if they are taken along, and that can be stopped and resumed if an infant needs care.” (Ember & Ember, 1993, pg. 288) These theories allow for men to partake in hunting while women gather.

Different Societies


  • Obtained food from hunting game and gathering nuts, berries and roots
  • Generally nomadic
  • Consists of small Kinship groups
  • Does not have a ranking social structure

Intensive Agricultural Societies

  • Utilizes domesticated animals
  • Established communities
  • Can sustain larger populations
  • More complex social structure than hunter-gatherer

Post Industrial Societies

  • Advanced industrial
  • Different sub communities within one centralized location
  • Sustains populations in the thousands
  • Established government and rank structure

Intensive Agricultural Societies

In intensive agricultural societies, these theories still stand, along with another theory. Due to the advanced technology that has accompanied the plow cultivation civilization that has added the expendability theory to the reasons why there are divisions in labor with regard to gender. The expendability states “that men, rather than women, will tend to do the more 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, 1993, pg. 290) The danger with intensive agriculture is more so than hunting due to the technology. “Intensive agriculture is based on the use of the plow, draft animals, fertilizers, and irrigation systems.” (Brettell & Sargent, 2009, pg. 140) This technology also shows why the strength theory is a sound theory. Most draft animals are equine, elephant, or oxen; animals that take training and strength to control. The gentler side of intensive agriculture; the picking of the produce, a throwback to gathering, allows for women to keep their children close while working in the field or orchard.

Post-Industrial Societies

In today’s post-industrial society, these divisions in labor due to gender are almost nonexistent, yet many nuclear families still follow the traditional norm of the compatibility-with-child-care theory. As a mother of a toddler and expecting another child soon, I can reason with this theory for one reason, breastfeeding. “Although males can take care of infants, most traditional societies rely upon breast-feeding of infants, which men cannot do.” (Ember & Ember, 1993, pg. 288) It is only logical to allow the one caregiver, the female, who can fully provide for the infant to care for the infant while the other caregiver, the male, provides for the whole family. This has carried over into our society with laws regarding maternity leave and the provisions for breastfeeding women at work and in public. Granted, with the technology available today, women can pump their milk and go back to work allowing for the male to stay at home and care for the infant, creating equality with regard to caring for the child.

Question Time!

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Both societies, hunter-gatherer and intensive agriculture, embrace the gender division in labor and the theories with regard to strength, child care and expendability. The hunter-gatherer society embraces the strength of the male, while the intensive agricultural allows for the possibility of death with the advanced technology, yet both recognize the importance of the female with regard to the care of children as future generations of their individual societies.


Brettell, C & Sargent, C. (2009) Gender in Cross Cultural Perspectives. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall

Ember, C.R & Ember, M. (1993) Anthropology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall


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