'Women's work' back in spotlight

“What we don’t count, counts for nothing,” says Marilyn Waring, a founder of feminist economics. Which means that the Labor Party promise to give the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) extra money to restart its unpaid work surveys is great news.

Ms Waring argues that we can never understand the economic value of unpaid work if we don’t count the hours.

The ABS conducted detailed time-use surveys in 1992, 1997 and 2006 but cancelled the 2013 stocktake due to funding cuts under the Julia Gillard Government.

The studies record the time Australians spend doing unpaid work such as caring for children and older people and doing housework. They are regarded as one of the most reliable estimates of such work.

Ahead of International Women’s Day today, Labor pledged that if it wins government, it would give the ABS an extra $15.2 million between 2019 and 2029 to run time-use surveys in 2020 and 2027.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek says: “Women do three-quarters of the childcare, two-thirds of the housework and 70 per cent of the caring for elderly or disabled family members and friends.

“But Australia has no way of calculating the value to the economy of that unpaid caring work. The last time the survey was done was before we had iPhones.

“The last time we did the sums – back in 1997 – our unpaid work was worth $261 billion – equivalent to almost half of Australia’s GDP that year.”

Community leaders acknowledge that the imbalance in women doing the bulk of unpaid work has implications for their economic insecurity through poorer superannuation and retirement balances when compared to men.

The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) reported last year that men retire with an average of $113,660 more in super than women.

Ms Plibersek said that caring patterns were changing as more men took advantage of paternity and special leave to help raise and care for their families, but acknowledged that further changes were dependant on businesses agreeing to requests for more flexible work arrangements.

An Australian Human Rights Commission report says mothers spend twice as many hours looking after children under 15 each week compared with fathers.

“We make it difficult for men to take on what’s still thought of as ‘women’s work’,” Ms Plibersek said.

“But the root of the problem is that as a society we don’t place enough value on caring work. We can start to make a change by acknowledging its economic importance.”

A new United Nations report estimates that women do 2.6 times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work that men do: childcare, cooking, cleaning, looking after elderly parents.

But women are not compensated, and many national economies usually don’t calculate it.

Shahra Razavi, chief of research and data at UN Women, says the reason this kind of unpaid work isn’t calculated in GDP is because in most countries it is considered ‘women’s work’ and regarded as less valuable.

“If women stopped doing a lot of the work they do unpaid, then the whole economy would collapse,” she says.

Is there an imbalance in unpaid work in your household? Are there economic implications?

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Women the big losers
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Retirement income sweet spot

Written by Janelle Ward

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