Ever wondered what the impact of Christmas is on most women? Consider tallying the hours, cost and mental load for:
children - how to complete paid work and attend school concerts, care arrangements and school holiday activities for when the doors close for school or daycare, enrolments for next year, replacing outgrown clothes for summer;
presents - what to buy for who, shopping, wrapping, posting and that not insignificant matter of budgeting;
functions - the backwards and forwards for who will be at what event on what day, who will be least offended, who initiates the where and when and how to fit it all together;
accommodation - clearing out the house, sleeping arrangements, washing bed linen, seasonally high travel costs for those who aren’t near;
meals - planning, grocery shopping, table preparation, cooking, washing up and washing up and washing up;
family – bracing for inevitable spat between siblings, in-laws, parents, steps, obligatory ring-ins and the fall-out from the seething parties;
reflection – feeling inadequate and judged by the collective family.
Christmas is when most women carry the mother of all mental loads - Season’s Greetings!
A question of ranking
According to the latest gender gap study by the World Economic Forum, since 2006, Australian women continue to rank first in the world for educational attainment out of 144 countries [i]. How is it then that since 2006, the ranking of Australian women’s economic participation and opportunity has slipped 30 places, from 12th to 42nd ? Despite women’s educational attainment in Australia, we are taking a giant leap backwards in the gender equity stakes. The obvious question is why. Is it new demands of motherhood? Inadequate childcare? Is it unconscious bias? Are there economic disincentives? Is it that women need wives? What is going on?
Unpaid work – the quantum
Australian women account for almost three quarters of all unpaid work. Women conduct 76% of childcare, 67% of domestic work, 69% of care of adults and 57% of volunteering [ii]. Surely this unpaid and largely invisible work is sapping the energy of Australia’s women. Why is it that when men do offer to help, the task is often half done? Are we teaching our boys and girls about vacuuming, toilet cleaning and tidying up in equal measures? Is domestic blindness a Y chromosome affliction?
Women’s work may sound very micro but it’s frighteningly macro.
To put unpaid work in context, the annual value of unpaid childcare alone is estimated to be $409 billion, equivalent to 25% of Australia’s GDP [iii]. The annual value of unpaid domestic labour, cooking, tidying, laundry and all of those fun tasks is $132 billion, equivalent to around 8% of Australia’s GDP [iv]. Yet, unpaid childcare, unpaid domestic work, volunteering and unpaid caring work for older Australians is not valued in our National Accounts.
No matter what the income, education or location, however we look at it, women are still shouldering most of the unpaid work [v]. Why is it so?
Laundry – the end of romantic love
While some men claim to be doing more unpaid domestic labour relative to their own fathers they are still doing a fraction of what women do and most expect to be thanked for it. Many men do not seem to understand that washing clothes involves not only putting on the washing machine but sorting whites and colours in advance, hanging it out, taking it off the line, folding it up and putting it away. Many women just do it because they know that’s the only way there will be clean school uniforms. Acting as chief enforcer and administrator is often harder than just doing it. Is it any wonder that Alain de Botton singles out laundry as the centre of the end of romantic love [vi].
Australian women’s unpaid work worth $152 - $425 p/w
According to the ABS, the ‘typical’ Australian male is 37 years old and spends less than five hours a week on domestic work. The ‘typical’ Australian female is 38 years old and spends a minimum of five and up to 14 hours a week on domestic work. Australian women are doing between twice to three times the work of a male. [vii] Discounting what both sexes do on the domestic front, assuming an hourly rate of $30.00, this is the equivalent of women literally donating their labour time at a dollar worth of $152 to $425 a week. [viii] Does this explain the drop in our global ranking for gender equity for economic participation and opportunity?
Across every OECD country, women are doing significantly more unpaid work than men, irrespective of whether they have full-time jobs or not [ix].
The unwitting owner of never ending to-do lists
Women not only do most unpaid childcare, they are overwhelmingly the primary contact for the school, the permission slips, the nail clipping, the birthday gifts, the weekly groceries and when a date night does present itself, it’s the woman who books both the activity and the babysitter. Women source a solution for the care gaps between the deeply incompatible school hours and paid working hours.
The mental load is no laughing matter, although it makes a great comic as Emma’s famous illustration demonstrates [x]. The impact of this invisible work on women’s professional lives is rarely spoken about. What if women’s minds were no longer filled with to-do lists about grocery shopping, the P&C commitments, dentist appointments and presents for kids’ birthday parties. What if women were freed from this burden and spent the mental energy on their own professional or creative passions? Some say that for mothers, the freedom to just think is a privilege [xi]. Some men feel they’re just a walking ATM [xii]. How can this be reconciled?
What’s it worth to the national economy?
The economic impact of increasing women’s participation in the paid workforce is material. In 2012, the Grattan Institute found that if there were an extra 6 % of women in the workforce, we could add up to $25 billion, or approximately 1 %, to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [xiii]. Indeed, if GDP increased in proportion to the proportionate increase in the workforce then GDP would increase by $52 billion in current (2017-18) figures. [xiv] Furthermore, if female participation rates rose to the male equivalent then the workforce would increase by a massive 8.1 % and, again assuming GDP grows in proportion, GDP would increase by $149 billion.[xv]
On 17 October 2018 at The Australia Institute’s Revenue Summit in Parliament House, in a public Q&A session Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen committed to putting unpaid labour in the National Accounts on the ABS agenda.
A matter of tax – home production value = zero
At the same summit, Professor Patricia Apps released new research that demonstrated the inherent financial disincentive for stay-at-home parents (predominantly women) to re-enter the paid work force. Most women are significantly disadvantaged as a consequence of both Australia’s quasi-joint taxation system, and, that home production is valued at zero by the Government. Most women re-entering the paid workforce will pay an average tax rate of 50 % as a consequence of the withdrawal of Family Tax Benefit Part A and B, the Low Income Tax Offset and Medicare Levy [xvi].
Doing the lion’s share of unpaid domestic labour makes women in the paid workforce even more tired. As Professor Apps noted, home production is valued at zero. It is not until labour is measured and a dollar value ascribed to it that the real costs to the individual becomes clear and the contribution to the economy is valued. Without that connection being obvious, the work is trivialised.
Most of Australia’s women pay more tax for coming out of the kitchen and the laundry. Tax is complicated and the impact on women is hidden. The financial impact on women is amplified at retirement when time out from the paid workforce is compounded by limited superannuation contributions.
The gender gap widens with the presence of small children in the household, as men increase their involvement in the paid labour market but women reduce theirs. This is exacerbated by contrasting paid workforce behaviour in men and women, paternity leave is often a mere fortnight. As men do more paid workforce hours and women do more unpaid domestic hours they go in opposite directions. It is only one of those directions, traditionally the male, that is reflected in the national accounts and employment data. [xvii]
It’s time to shine a light on the invisible load that women carry and give it value. Just as people pay what a house is worth in real estate, the same should be true for childcare and housework. When we outsource childcare it has a value. When we employ a cleaner it has a value. When women do it themselves it has no value.
The valuable contribution of men’s paid and unpaid work
The observations outlined above do not in any way detract from the paid work that many men do. The financial benefits that accrue from men’s paid work that is often shared with partners and families is valuable and valid. The fatigue and stress from paid work is real and material for men and women.
There are some men that do step up and do their fair share of unpaid work –enlightened men with the self-awareness to see the whole picture. However, as the statistics above demonstrate, this is the exception rather than the rule.
The disproportionate burden of unpaid work on women is not about finding fault - the blame game helps no-one; the solution lies in new social norms. Like any social change, raising awareness of our collective unconscious bias in gender role norms for unpaid work is the key to fair distribution.
When the women of Iceland went on strike
On 24 October 1975, 90 % of Iceland’s women went on strike and for one day did no paid or unpaid work. The country ground to a halt. People noticed. Things changed. In Iceland a law was passed in 1976 banning wage discrimination on the basis of gender. The gender pay gap stood at more than 40% at the time: Women were paid less than 60% of what men were paid. According to recent data the unexplained gender pay gap in Iceland is now 4.5%.[xviii]
Imagine if Australia’s women followed their Icelandic counterparts.
We can do better
Only when unpaid work is valued and shared more equally between men and women, will women have a greater chance of participating well in paid work and getting more sleep. Only when children see their mothers and fathers sharing the load will the laundry become the natural home of the Y chromosome and the domestic load be done properly the first time. Only then will we hear more about Working Fathers [xix]. Who knows, if Alain de Botton is right we could move the action from laundry to the bedroom.
Where to from here?
A 7 point policy suggestion box - unpaid women’s work
Re-establish the Women’s Bureau (statistical collection, analysis and advocacy) and assign it to the Treasury portfolio, pick up where the longitudinal data left off in 1997. [xx] Collect new data that includes the hours and value of unpaid work. Run a set of parallel National Accounts. Deepen ABS data collection and frequency of publication on workforce participation to deliver evidence-based policy making.[xxi][xxii]
Review start and end time of school and work hours to better align commute logistics. Pilot a morning and afternoon shift model to: reduce the gap in availability and affordability of before and after school care; relieve commute stress and congestion; and, increase the ROI on facilities. Explore sharing childcare facilities with aged care.
Mirror the Intergenerational Report (five yearly Treasury Report) for Gender Disparity to ensure all Government policy takes account of the impact on women. [xxiii] Restore the Office of Status of Women under the Prime Minister and Cabinet.[xxiv]
Review family benefits and the penalty / incentive for returning to paid work and weigh up the cost / benefit for income testing including home production value and the taxation of a family unit versus individual.
Investigate a top-up payment at retirement age to compensate for the compounded sacrifice for unpaid caring work for children and elderly parents.
Establish a task list of unpaid work in the average household with a tangible to-do list for every fridge to encourage gender agnostic housework distribution that is accompanied by a regular existing government household mailout eg tax time. Track engagement.
Introduce a new part of the curriculum for early childhood / primary school to teach all children what’s involved in household running and remove gender bias in unpaid work. Intervene now rather than wait for several generations for behavioural change.
A potted history –Women’s workforce statistics – established, collected and abolished
It is impossible to make a reasonable argument without statistics. Without hard data we cannot make evidence-based policy decisions.
Anne Summers [xxv], recently quoted some ANU research by Russell and Sawer uncovering that way back in 1963, the Robert Menzies Government established a women's section in the Department of Labour and National Service. The section was tasked with conducting research about the changing workforce, the part-time employment of women and the extent to which women re-enter the workforce when family responsibilities allow. [xxvi]
After years of advocacy by Liberal Senator Ivy Wedgewood, in 1968 the women’s research section was expanded under a Coalition Government, to a much larger Women's Bureau. The Women’s Bureau monitored equal pay and started developing a childcare policy. [xxvii]The Women’s Bureau became an authoritative and influential monitor of trends in women's employment and a forceful advocate for equal pay and paid maternity leave. Its annual publications were legendary for their meticulous research and up-to-date surveys of all matters to do with women in the workforce.[xxviii]
During the Hawke / Keating Governments, Dr Anne Summers, Geoffrey Yeend and Senator Susan Ryan oversaw three key reforms: first, the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act; second, the introduction of a Women’s Budget Program (WBP), documenting how policies from 13 government departments impacted on women; and, third, the introduction of a child care rebate that was designed to encourage women into the paid workforce. [xxix] Much of this work was done under the auspices of the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) that sat with Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In 1997 the Howard Government abolished the Women’s Bureau in the ABS [xxx], demolishing the only source of statistics that documented up-to-date data about women’s participation in the workforce. [xxxi] The OSW was also abolished. Since the mid-nineties, payments relating to childcare in the form of the Child Care Rebate (now Subsidy) and Family Tax Benefits Part A and Part B have been heavily skewed to penalise women returning to paid work.
A new approach is desperately required, we need to speak up and demand policy reform to collect and use data to enact evidence-based policy to address unpaid women’s work.
[xiv] Estimate based on ABS (2018) Australian System of National Accounts, 2017-18, Cat no 5204.0, 26 October and ABS (2018) Labour Force, Australia, October 2018, Cat no 6202.0, 15 November
[xvi] Professor Patricia Apps (The University of Sydney Law School, ANU, UTS and IZ), Evidence on Inequality and the need for a more progressive tax system, paper released at the Revenue Summit, The Australia Institute, 17 October 2018