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Monique Keiran: Household labours not delineated by gender

When it comes to gender equality, researchers find Dad’s actions around the house mean more than his words. University of B.C.

When it comes to gender equality, researchers find Dad’s actions around the house mean more than his words.

University of B.C. psychologists recently found that when a father regularly engages in household chores that are traditionally thought of as “women’s work,” his school-aged daughters are more likely to aspire to gender-neutral careers — for instance, becoming doctors, lawyers or CEOs.

Which means, guys, if you want your daughters to become highly paid white- or blue-collared professionals, be sure you change diapers, scrub floors, pick up groceries, drycleaning and dirty socks, and make dinner — often and regularly. For, as Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s reported emails to his staff assert, in doing so, you will indeed shape your daughters’ minds and values.

Gender-based divisions of household labour are social constructs. Yet, despite the last 40 years’ advances, women remain the primary caregivers, cooks and cleaners in many households. Some people — including some individuals in influential places — claim the roles naturally come with being the only humans biologically capable of giving birth.

But imagine if we could switch biological roles, as it were, without complicated surgeries and hormones. Imagine if we could easily adjust the division of reproductive labour. That would be the end of many questionable comments and assumptions.

Some organisms do exactly that. Bluebanded goby fish, for instance, switch from female to male and back again whenever it suits their position in their school’s social hierarchy.

And among monogamous clownfishes, when the female in a relationship dies, the male changes sex instead of dating and finding another female to be the mother of his fry. The once-male, newly female Nemo then pairs up with a single male clownfish.

Slugs, on the other hand, are hermaphrodites — simultaneously male and female. But these gastropods (Latin for “stomachfoots”) have a habit of losing their daddy bits. (Male readers might want to skip the next paragraph.)

In the course of impregnating another slug, a slug’s daddy bits may be torn off (ouch!). Sometimes, the partner gnaws them off (yikes!). Sometimes the slug finds the only way to free itself from its partner is to, er … well, animals caught in leg-hold traps have been known to gnaw off their legs to free themselves.

After which, the slug is relegated to being bare-stomachfooted and pregnant for the rest of its life.

Nature’s most elegant solution to gender equality may be the strategy used by B.C.’s own Olympia oysters. In a truly equitable arrangement, these mollusks alternate mommy and daddy roles from year to year. Oysters that were male last year become female this year. On them falls the year’s burden of developing up to 300,000 eggs each, trawling currents for oyster sperm to fertilize those eggs, brooding the eggs, and then — at last and thank goodness, because caring for one-quarter-million-plus babies is utterly exhausting, if you know what I mean — sending the darling little larvae out into the world.

Last year’s females, meanwhile, enjoy a year-long sabbatical as guys. Their primary job this and every alternating year is to package and release sperm in clusters called “sperm balls.” The bomb casings that protect the precious genetic cargo disintegrate in seawater, freeing the sperm to wash hither and yon on the tide, awaiting chance encounter with a female-this-year oyster’s filtering gills and — destiny! — her eggs.

It’s automatic. No negotiations are needed to establish who is responsible for what. No arguments. No resentment. And no harried, overworked, overcommitted, guilt-ridden overachievers — at least, not for more than one year at a time.

As for mammals, German scientists discovered our gender switch in 2009. They found a single gene that determines whether we grow mommy parts or daddy parts. Switch the gene on, and we grow ovaries. Switch it off, and — ta-daa! — testicles.

The researchers also found that turning the gene on or off in adult mice causes ovary cells to start changing into testicle cells. This means the division of reproductive labour in mammals may not be as carved in genetic stone as once thought.

And if that is malleable, then so, too, is the division of household labour.