The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Amidst the upheavals, it has laid bare how little we normally pay for “women’s work”.
Australia has very low gender equality when it comes to remuneration, ranking 49th on the World Economic Forum Gender Participation and Opportunity Index 2020 that measures workforce participation, remuneration and advancement.
The costs in lost lifetime earnings fall privately, on individual women and their families. An indicator is that near retirement women’s average super balances are less than half those of men. Older women are the fastest growing group of homeless in the country.
Yet unpaid care has not been counted in GDP figures and has been largely invisible in economic policy.
It is not so invisible now. The fact that care is an essential bedrock to the economy has become more obvious in these last few chaotic weeks. Faced with a collapsing economy, the prime minister announced that he does not want Australians to have to choose between earning money and caring for their children.
All of a sudden, child care is an ‘essential service’DEAN LEWINS/AAP
Many mothers have been working for no extra net income. Many more have had to choose between earning and caring for their children.
Paid employment is not the only productive activity.
The belief that it is has obscured the deeper truth that caring work, most of it performed unpaid by women in families, is also productive.
It turns out that through the clarifying lens of a global pandemic, the government can see its value more clearly.
Indeed, it is striking how many of the jobs that are now seen as essential involve care, and how many of them are female-dominated.
Not coincidentally, they also pay well below the level the skills and qualifications would require if they were predominantly done by men.
Nurses and teachers earn less than equivalently or less qualified professionals in similar occupations. 32% of police and 27% of ambulance officers earn more than $2000 per week, compared to 10% of nurses and 12% of teachers.
And it is now clear teachers do much more than educate the nation’s children.
It’d be wise to pay our essential workers well
In addition to its day job of educating, one expert female-dominated workforce is expected to provide childcare for another.
Alongside care workers we are also newly realising our debt to the public facing workers in retail and food supply. And our need to keep them safe and well.
Even if schools and childcare centres remain open, many families will decide to care for the children at home. For many women in these families that won’t remove the stressful daily juggle between time in paid work and time in care. It will move it to the home, under more trying and confined conditions.
The coronavirus crisis has made brutally clear that care work, both paid and unpaid, is fundamental to our economic and social survival.
We should not continue to undervalue it, or to free-ride on those that do the most.
We should pay our care workers properly for the skilled and expert work they do.
We should arrange our workplaces to allow both men and women enough time to care for children and loved ones as well as earn a living.
And keep childcare free. It’s an essential service.
- ^ Gender Participation and Opportunity Index 2020 (www3.weforum.org)
- ^ caring and service industries (www.smartcompany.com.au)
- ^ low paid (cdn.aigroup.com.au)
- ^ unpaid (doi.org)
- ^ 311 (stats.oecd.org)
- ^ limit (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ Mothers have little to show for extra days of work under new tax changes (theconversation.com)
- ^ supports society (www.pwc.com.au)
- ^ discounted (www.tandfonline.com)
- ^ half (www.amp.com.au)
- ^ homeless (womensagenda.com.au)
- ^ free (theconversation.com)
- ^ private schooling (www.mitchellinstitute.org.au)
- ^ two or three days a week (theconversation.com)
- ^ Free child care to help nearly one million families, especially workers in essential services (theconversation.com)
- ^ top up (www.abc.net.au)
- ^ The charts that show coronavirus pushing up to a quarter of the workforce out of work (theconversation.com)
- ^ 10% of nurses and 12% of teachers (www.powertopersuade.org.au)
- ^ essential workers (www.news.com.au)
- ^ Why Labor's childcare policy is the biggest economic news of the election campaign (theconversation.com)
Authors: Lyn Craig, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Melbourne