published in this abridged fromat by Future Women in December 2018
It’s considered the “most wonderful time of the year”, but for many women, the Christmas period is the biggest harbinger of stress and tears. From gift buying, to house cleaning, to managing delicate family relations, to preparing the Christmas meal, women bear the brunt of the unpaid workload during the holiday season.
But it’s not just Christmas causing women to bear the majority of domestic chores. Unpaid women’s work is an issue occuring all year round. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average Australian woman spends up to 14 hours a week on domestic work, compared to less than five hours a week for men. This leaves Australian women accounting for almost three quarters of all unpaid work. If we assume the average hourly wage is $30, this is the equivalent of women missing out on up to $425 a week for the time they’re spending grocery shopping and cleaning the house.
Many blame the huge gender gap in unpaid work on men being the predominant family breadwinner working full-time, while women remain predominantly stay-at-home mothers with part-time careers. But across every OECD country, women are doing significantly more unpaid work than men, irrespective of whether or not they have a full-time job.
The Dollar Value of Unpaid Work
The time women spend doing unpaid work is not just affecting women’s purse strings. It has massive ramifications for Australia’s economy, too. The annual value of unpaid childcare alone is estimated to be $409 billion, equivalent to 25 per cent of Australia’s GDP. The annual value of unpaid domestic labour (such as cooking and cleaning) is $132 billion, around eight per cent of Australia’s GDP.
In 2012, the Grattan Institute found an extra six per cent of women in the workforce would equate to an extra $25 billion, or approximately one per cent, being added to Australia’s GDP. What’s more, if female participation rates rose to the male equivalent then the workforce would increase by a massive 8.1 per cent, leading to a $149 billion increase to Australia’s GDP. Despite this massive financial cost, unpaid childcare, domestic work, volunteering and unpaid caring work for older Australians is not valued in our National Accounts.
The Australian Tax System Doesn’t Encourage Mothers To Return To Work
While more men are choosing to become stay-at-home dads, women are still disproportionately the parent who takes time off work to look after their child. But in Australia, many mothers are finding that if they want to return to work, they have to pay a high price. At the Australia Institute’s 2018 Revenue Summit, Professor Patricia Apps released new research demonstrating the inherent financial disincentive for stay-at-home parents (who are predominantly women) to re-enter the paid workforce. Most women are significantly disadvantaged as a consequence of both Australia’s quasi-joint taxation system, and the fact that home production is not currently valued by the government. Most women re-entering the paid workforce will pay an average tax rate of 50 per cent as a consequence of the withdrawal of Family Tax Benefit, the Low Income Tax offset and Medicare levy.
The evidence shows that high effective marginal tax rates deter mothers from working more, as they have little financial benefit to gain from doing so. This not only has consequences for women’s careers, but also the ability of families to support themselves with two incomes.
The Mental Load
From grocery shopping to dentists appointments, the pressure of taking on a disproportionate level of unpaid work - particularly for working mothers - is clearly taking a toll on women’s mental wellbeing. But the stress of shouldering this work doesn’t just stem from actually doing all these tasks. For women, the emotional stress of acting as Chief Domestic Work Enforcer and Administrator is often harder than just doing it. The mental load required for these tasks - all the to-do lists, birthday parties and presents, enrolments, school notes, playdates and babysitters alongside remembering to ring the plumber - is a near-constant thought process which many women have to grapple with on a daily basis. No wonder studies consistently show there’s a stress gap between men and women, with women experiencing significantly higher levels of stress and anxiety.
But remembering what’s on the whole shopping list, making school lunches, doing laundry, organising the social calendar, getting the right t-shirt for the right child’s school event, scheduling haircuts and remembering both birthdays and presents aren’t exactly resume skills. The distraction of the mental load is holding women back from their careers, as the more energy and time dedicated to unpaid work, the less time is available to dedicate to paid work. Even more cause for concern is the fact that the mental load is reducing the amount of time women have to spend relaxing and doing other things bringing them joy.
Yes, Men Are Helping Out More - But It’s Still Not Enough
While some men claim to be doing more unpaid domestic labour in comparison to their own fathers, they’re still doing only a fraction of what women do. Most men think that helping is good enough and don’t consider it their job in the first place. Many men expect to be thanked for ‘helping’. When women do ask for help, many men leave a job half-done, often making more work when the consequences are felt. Too many men don’t seem to understand that washing clothes involves not only putting on the washing machine, but also sorting whites and colours, hanging it out, talking it off the line, folding it up, and putting it away. Many women do all this automatically, as they know that’s the only way there will be clean school uniforms, a pair of matching socks, ironed shirts and dry swimwear. Is it any wonder that Alain de Botton singles out laundry as the centre of the end of romantic love?
Only when unpaid work begins to be valued by society and shared more equally between the sexes will women have a greater chance of participating in paid work and getting more sleep. Only when children see their mothers and fathers sharing the load will we hear more about ‘working fathers’. If Alain de Botton is right, we might even be able to move the action from the laundry to the bedroom.
8 Ways The Issue Of Unpaid Women’s Work Can Be Addressed
Re-establish the Women’s Bureau (a government department launched by the Menzies government in 1963 that monitored trends in women’s employment) as part of the Treasury, including new data on unpaid work.
Review start and end times of school and work hours to improve practicality for working parents.
Consider offering a top-up payment at retirement age to compensate for the hours spent undertaking unpaid caring work.
Mirror the Treasury’s Intergenerational Report, but for Gender Disparity to ensure all government policy accounts for the impact on women.
Restore the Office of Status of Women under the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Review family benefits and the penalties or incentives for returning to paid work.
Create and mail out a to-do list of unpaid work tasks in the average household to encourage gender agnostic housework distribution.
Educate children from an early age about what is involved in running a household and remove gender bias when it comes to unpaid work. This could be through introducing a new part of the curriculum in school or setting an example for children at home.