Expecting either of the major political parties to ride a white horse into budget night and lay the severed head of the patriarchy at the feet of Australian women is a wildly unrealistic (albeit entertaining) fantasy. It does seem reasonable, however, that the budget should have made some genuine effort at addressing the disproportionate effect COVID has had on women’s economic security.
Sadly, no. And the failure was not in this one budget or even in the Opposition reply, which promised a $6.2 billion boost to childcare subsidies. Governments fail women with the belief that childcare is a “women’s issue” and by reducing women’s economic wellbeing to ideological arguments over how much taxpayers should subsidise our unpaid labour.
The assumption that women are responsible for caring for children, managing the household and looking after older family members is the source of almost all the issues that create a lifetime of female economic disadvantage.
Such “women’s work” has almost always been unpaid and is therefore now undervalued as paid work. Female dominated professions such as childcare, aged care, social services and community work are among the lowest paid skilled jobs in the country. This, along with the time women take out of the workforce to care for children and their vast overrepresentation in part time work, are some of the main contributors to the gender pay disparity.
Politicians call these things “women’s issues”, but they’re not issues that belong only to women. Parents have children. People have older family members in need of help. Households need cleaning, managing and organising. Communities need carers, workers and support. None of these needs are gendered and there is no reason men should so comprehensively ignore their equal responsibilities for meeting those needs.
Yet the high cost of childcare is rarely seen as a barrier to fathers returning to the workforce. The mental and physical energy required to keep food, clean clothes and social engagements running smoothly through the house don’t interfere with men’s careers. The demands of school drop offs, staying home with sick kids, packing lunches, attending school concerts and sports, or managing school holidays do not stand in the way of fathers working full time. The needs of elderly parents suffering mobility or health problems don’t affect men’s ability to stay fully employed. More “women’s issues”.
The effect of all these so-called women’s issues is deeply gendered economic insecurity.
Women were on dangerous ground even before the COVID. The real gender pay gap – the actual difference between what women and men earn each week – was about 40 per cent. Nearly 45 per cent of children of the 780,000 single mothers in Australia were living in poverty in 2019, putting them at risk of falling into an intergenerational cycle of poverty. According to research from the Australian Council of Social Services and the University of New South Wales, this is mostly due to inadequate income support, lack of affordable housing, expensive childcare, and low paid employment.
Women over 55 were the fastest growing cohort of homeless people in the 2016 census. Women’s superannuation balance near retirement is about 40 percent of men’s, reflecting a working life that pays only slightly more than half the money paid to men.
And this is before the impact of JobKeeper and Jobseeker reductions hits everyone’s hip pocket.
What will happen to families in a recession when the cost of care is too high and everyone expects this cost should be deducted from women’s wages, rather than family income? More women will decide it’s not worth the effort to return to paid work, further adding to the increasing number of women leaving the workforce. It also means responsibility for expensive caring work will become more deeply embedded as a women’s issue, rather than the concern it should be for everyone.
The long-term cost for women will be even lower superannuation balances, lower wages, fewer career prospects if they do return to paid work, and dangerously inadequate financial provisions for their old age.
More women will become dependent on income support and aged pensions, leading to an extra burden on the economy.
Forcing women further into caring roles also forces men away from them. Men who want more from fatherhood than earning would benefit from removing gender from parenting. Men might prefer to share their lives with their partners rather than argue over dividing the responsibilities. No one benefits from being trapped in a gendered alley.
Men are more than breadwinners; women are more than carers, and not everyone fits comfortably in a tiny gender box. Perceiving unpaid care as a women’s issue makes it an unsolvable problem for all women. Everyone loses when we entrench those stereotypes in government policy and social expectations.
Jane Gilmore was the founding editor of The King’s Tribune. She is now a freelance journalist and author, with a particular interest in feminism, media and data journalism and has written for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Daily Telegraph, The Saturday Paper and Meanjin, among many others. Jane has a Master of Journalism from the University of Melbourne, and her book FixedIt: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media was published by Penguin Random House in 2019.
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