Heterosexual Couples Talking about and “Doing” Gender

The Nordic countries consider themselves the most gender equal countries in the world. Nordic governments often promote Nordic gender equality as a unified image, featuring "new" men and women living the ideal gender equal life. This scenario forms the background for a Nordic study of gender equality practices and rhetoric, and its consequences at three societal levels: parliamentary party-politics, regional and local implementation of policies, and practices in nuclear families.

In the study we interrogate the ways people use language, for instance as a resource when arguing; and the ways language and gender equality discourses organize people’s identity narratives and heterosexual couples’ identity projects.

This article presents a glimpse from our ongoing study of practices in nuclear families, where we listen to interview narratives of heterosexual couples with children, and how they talk together about the ways they organize everyday life, in the context of surrounding ideologies. We do detailed analyses of interaction and talk, in order to study gender constructions in action against the “accepting” cultural background.

Basic to our approach is seeing talk as both ‘data’ and ‘discourse’: ‘data’, since couples are talking about things to do with daily life; and ‘discourse’, since they are doing identity in the interviews. They are acting what it means to them to be a man, a woman and a couple in this particular setting (Cameron, 2001). This follows from accepting that selves and identities are socially constructed: there are limits to how different they can be. A person’s identity performances are likely to be drawn from a limited number of culturally available “options.” Thus, the understandings that a person creates of herself and her world comprehend both the complex encounter between different norms/discourses, and the continuous recreating of a self within the force-field of this encounter. Also, while talking about their organizing of daily life and their history as a couple, women and men are simultaneously managing accountabilities, that is, telling as good and credible stories as possible.

Couple talk

Cecilia and Carl are in their fourties and have been married almost twenty years. She is a high-school teacher, and he is a salesman. They have been pioneers in the sharing of child-care from 1985 onwards. With both children Cecilia stayed home for six months, and then Carl stayed home for another six months. They both wanted this very much, and they both enjoyed it immensely.

The interviewer asked Carl how his colleagues and boss reacted to his taking six months paternal leave, and he answered: “..reactions weren’t very favorable… / Not many were on my side, oh no.” This sounds like an uphill struggle, having to stay uninfluenced by negative attitudes. Cecilia does not agree: “But you had the world’s best boss – he was on your side anyway.” Carl, however, asserts that he would have acted in the same way without that support.

Carl’s accounts are all along more adversarial than Cecilia’s. Cecilia talks only of positive reactions from others: “..oh ,what a wonderful man, how marvellous!” “How did you find a man like that, who wants to stay home…?”

The spouses position themselves in two different discourses: She echoes her friends’ sense of wonder that there exists a man who makes a serious contribution; we could call this the discourse of gender equality as a gift. He focuses on gender equality as a venture that places him in opposition to average men. This could be termed gender equality as a heroic achievement. Both discourses give credits to the husband, but not necessarily to the wife.

Cecilia and Carl shared childcare for several years: she left home early, and he began work around ten o’clock after taking the children to the daycare center. She picked up the children and cooked dinner. This arrangement was a source of wonder and envy for Cecilia’s female friends: they told her she ought to feel privileged that her husband “freed her of” the mornings with the children. And she did.

Daily life today

It is a guiding idea of Nordic gender equality politics that fathers taking parental leave will promote gender equality generally in the family (Nordic Council of Ministers, 1998). Assuming responsibility for childcare and housework supposedly has a carry-over effect into life after the infant period. I will call this the discourse of gender equality as transformation.

Today Cecilia’s and Carl’s children are in their middle teens, and they share driving the children to soccer training as it fits with working hours. This division feels equitable. Their accounts of household chores today were: Cecilia does the major part of shopping for food, cooking, house-cleaning, laundry, watering flower-pots, and “little things” like keeping rooms tidy. She helps the children with their homework. Carl takes care of leaking faucets and other maintenance tasks, changes tyres on the car, and does things at their summer house.

The interviewer asked Carl if there was anything that he did more of. “Being away from home”, was his answer, followed by: “No, I guess I am not really that terribly domesticated…” Thus, his not being domesticated excuses him from doing any great parts of the housework (in contrast to staying home with their two babies, which he was very interested in doing). For this to happen automatically, there needs to exist a gendered default; a discourse of women’s family responsibility.

Later Carl added, “Actually, I guess it’s just a matter of convenience for me.” Saying this, he must have been aware of being politically incorrect according to well-known Swedish gender equality discourses, which strongly advocate equal sharing of housework. In attitude surveys, an overwhelming majority of Swedes support this ideal (Flood & Gråsjöö, 1997). Thus, Carl’s stance deviates from the official discourse of gender equality as equal sharing. To further explore this, I will pursue traces of two discourses that counteract equal sharing ideals while also being closely related to dentity issues. The first I call “doing own thing”, and the second is a dis course of love and marital harmony.

“Doing your own thing”

In the discourse of “doing your own thing”, the catchword is that “everybody should do what they are best suitd to do.” Interestingly, doing gender in culturally appropriate ways is usually one important ingredient. Though they had both violated traditional differencebased prescriptions about childcare, today, discourses of difference are strong n Carl’s and Cecilia’s accounts. They appear in efficiency arguments about who is best at house-cleaning, changing tyres, doing laundry etc., confirming their differences in ability as sensible reasons for their work division. Arguments are given extra force by Cecilia’s contrasting their own practices (that she feels are fair) with people who live religiously by the discourse of gender equality as equal sharing. She portrays their attempts at fairness as mechanistic and rather childish. Through disagreeing with these people, Cecilia’s accountability-management effectively discredits the official discourse of equal Then, “doing your own thing” stands as the only sensible choice. Such fairness arguments are common in gender equality discussions.

Love and marital harmony

The second counteracting discourse concerns the couple’s romantic project: Failure to achieve total equality may be your read as proof of a love deficit. How do people avoid this conclusion during their usually not-so-idyllic daily lives? For some, the doing your own thing discourse leads to an understanding of imbalances in housework as related to differences in abilities and thus “natural” rather than “political.”

Thus, Cecilia redefines certain issues as irrelevant to equality: Telling the interviewer that she does all the laundry, she does not frame her story in gender equality terms; she does the laundry i because he is incompetent. When talking about cooking, she emphasizes harmony by saying “it’s no cause of conflict”, rather than “it doesn’t make me start a conflict”. The reign of harmony proves that her responsibility is not an instance of gender inequality. Such default accounting tends to be used by men more than by women; then, why does Cecilia several times use such a strategy? She was talking to the interviewer and her husband, talking as one partner in a successful marriage, “doing marital harmony” while being interviewed. Does this make her answers less true? No, but it shows the importance of contextualizing any kind of story about important aspectis of people’s lives. And it shows the strength of modern discourses of heterosexuality.

Doing gender in the interview

When the interviewer asked if either was dissatisfied with housework routines, Cecilia told of coming home that day and finding piles of mud in the hall, which she “demonstratively” (her words) vacuumed. Carl was at home but had not bothered. This was Cecilia’s first criticism of Carl, who retorted that she always does this kind of thing, instead of relaxing. He had been too busy to bother about the hall, and finished: “If people want to come here, thinking our house is messy, that’s their problem!”

These accounts may be instances of doing gender in the interview situation. Was Carl telling the interviewer that he did not bother tidying the house because she was coming? Cecilia, laughing after Carl’s eruption about mud, was perhaps showing unease about the jarring note that he inserted. This would fit with expectations about women’s ways of communicating: that they worry more about the “tone” of conversation than men do.

Thinking further analytically

Some time after the above, Carl, outside the question-answer turntaking, said “I know I really ought to be better at it [house-cleaning].” This was his first explicit admission of “guilt”, coming after her first complaint about him and his first denigrating remark about her. Here it might be fruitful to ask: Why this remark at this moment? What does it accomplish? This means scrutinizing the micro-situation. Further, does the remark tell us anything about the wider discursive economy, or about what is possible to say, and what may be heard? (Wetherell, 2001b: 17).

The micro-situation includes three previous conversation turns, where the interviewer asked how Cecilia felt about Carl’s inability to “see” the need for cleaning the hall. The interviewer probably seemed to accept Cecilia’s rather than Carl’s version of the mud incident and legitimize Cecilia’s “demonstrative vacuuming.” This might perhaps have provoked his concession. Conversational peace is the result of Carl’s remark; not long afterwards, Cecilia says that since his way of cleaning takes too long, it is just as well that she does it – removing guilt from him.

Their wider discursive situation: later, the interviewer asked what made them fit together as a couple. Carl answered first, connecting to his remark above: “We sort of complement each other, I mean I think many would become completely hysterical because – well I, I may as well admit it, there’s much in our home that rests on Cecilia. And the question is how many would accept that today. Sure I try to help a lot, but… still Cecilia has to take responsibility.” Carl is aware that many women would react strongly to their domestic arrangements, and that they are ideologically illegitimate according to the discourse of gender equality as equal sharing. This makes his accountability management problematic. But other understandings are available to him, one relating to ideas about “what women are like” (..completely hysterical). Probably, many women would be angry, and portraying an angry woman as hysterical is a way of discrediting her anger. Carl is telling the interviewer and Cecilia that Cecilia is not like “other women”, an invitation that women may sometimes have difficulties resisting. The unspoken threat of otherwise being seen as “hysterical” is powerful.

Sacrifice and compensation

A clue to their present situation might be found in her gratitude for what he sacrificed when the children were young. Men who share responsibility and housework are often seen as sacrificing something, giving something to their wives. The wife is seen as gaining something. When a couple divides responsibility and care evenly, this is often seen as an imbalanced situation. This couple started out with a huge imbalance in “her favour”; she supposedly profited enormously. Did he collect such great amounts of credits that she has been paying him back since? Does she have a husband who “is gender equal” in principle, regardless of what his practice is like?


The discourses that were active in this couple’s interactions are contradictory and could not easily co-exist in a coherent account. But that is not how stories about gender equality are constructed. They are often fragmented, and each segment is talked about separately, without connecting to the larger picture, or to other segments. Stories permit “accountability management”: using those meanings that fit one’s current narrative purposes best.

However, the contradictory practices and understandings that couples negotiate constitute arenas where power and identities are continuously changed and/or recreated. Thus, it is not always obvious whether they are using the available understandings/discourses for some kind of ulterior motives, or whether they are on the contrary being pushed by them into culturally appropriate positions and practices.

In sum, official gender equality ideology, at least for this couple, seems overlayed on discourses supporting traditionally gendered practices. “Equal sharing”, although the ideal, feels external to each partner’s experience of an inner self. Also, practising the ideal would conflict with being a loving couple and a person “doing your own thing.” One conclusion we may draw, therefore, is that any hopes (or fears) that propaganda for equal sharing would make ideological converts of people whether they want it or not, are unjustified. Whether this is good or bad is another question…

By Eva Magnusson


Cameron, Deborah (2001) Working With Spoken Discourse. London: Sage Publications.

Magnusson, Eva (2000) Party-political rhetoric on gender equality in Sweden: the uses of uniformity and heterogeneity.

NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 8(2): 78-93.

Nordic Council of Ministers (1998) Men on parental leave – how men use parental leave in the Nordic countries.

TemaNord 1998: 569. Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers.

Wetherell, Margaret (2001) Themes in discourse research: The case of Diana. In Wetherell, Margaret, Stephanie Taylor & Simeon.

J. Yates (Eds.) Discourse Theory and Practice: A reader. London: Sage Publications, p. 14-28.

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2001 © NIKK

Logotyp för Norden Logotype Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Logotype University of Gothenburg