Wives still left with washing up

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 1994, 12:00am

TRADITIONAL Chinese thinking which puts the father at the head of the household and sees the mother as caring for the family and household chores, may have been modified by Hong Kong's modernisation, but this is not being matched by behaviour.

The transition to a modern industrial society, the exodus of women into the workforce and the rise of the nuclear family had all affected thinking, said Sandra K.M. Tsang, a lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong, in her review of the role of fathers in the territory.

''There has been a gradual shift in attitudes towards a more egalitarian division in family responsibilities,'' Ms Tsang told the International Conference on Family and Community Care last week.

But, she added, studies had shown that most household chores were undertaken by women regardless of whether they worked. Fathers' increased participation in the family was confined to such areas as the recreational activities of their children.

Such conservative gender roles were confirmed in another paper presented to the conference. Most Hong Kong husbands and many wives still believe that it is the man's role to concentrate on his work while women should look after home affairs, according to research by Dr Toni Mehrain, a sociology research associate at the University of Hong Kong.

She found in a survey of 568 respondents that nearly 60 per cent of fathers and 46 per cent of mothers believed that fathers were the head of the household and should take the major family decisions.

More than half of fathers agreed that men should focus on their work and women should concentrate on home affairs. Mothers were only slightly more liberal, 44 per cent agreeing and 36 per cent disagreeing.

Dr Mehrain was surprised to find that the sons interviewed, who ranged from aged 10 to 29, were almost as conservative as their fathers, with 40 per cent agreeing that fathers should be household heads and 48 per cent agreeing that the father should concentrate on work and mother on household affairs.

Daughters were more liberal with 26 per cent agreeing and 53 per cent disagreeing. They were also the least likely to believe that fathers should be the head of the household.

Dr Mehrain said: ''We know that there is male dominance in Hong Kong society. But I was surprised with my conclusion. With the engagement of women in the workforce I would have expected them to be less conservative.'' She said that women's reluctance to share power and responsibilities outside the home could be because women realised they had less chance of fulfilling them, because of their lower educational standards and poorer chances of securing a steady job. This was particularly the case for older women.

Her research also suggested that it is still men who make the family rules and take the major decisions. Women exercised more power in domestic affairs and the socialisation of their children. To her surprise she found that the traditional attitudes did not vary according to income and education. They only varied according to age and sex.

Dr Mehrain is now studying the link between male dominance and conflict in the family, in particular whether women going out to work affects the amount of conflict in the marriage. ''More egalitarian and modern families are not necessarily without a degree of conflict,'' she said.