Housework and home work in the time of coronavirus

Housework & homework in the time of coronavirus

Now that so many Australians are working from home together, can we establish a new paradigm for (heterosexual) families to divide up all these tasks in a more equitable way?

All across the country, more and more Australians are juggling the reality of working from home.

For many it presents a whole range of challenges. New technology, new ways of working, new ways of connecting with colleagues and delivering to clients and customers.

Many couples are now working together from the same workspace for the first time. Add in kids who need to be home-schooled, fed, entertained and it’s a recipe for chaos.

At DCA, we have heard lots of anecdotes about the responsibility of home-schooling falling to women, and certainly social media suggests that is the case.

But, there is also a great opportunity here for a radical re-imagining of how families share unpaid labour and improve gender equality.   

Currently in Australia women are responsible for the overwhelming majority of unpaid labour, including unpaid care for children and other family members.   

DCA’s She’s Price(d)less research showed that women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work, lack of workplace flexibility and time out of the workforce account for almost 40% of the gender pay gap.

Ironically, this same pay gap also limits men’s ability to take on family caring roles – often men (in heterosexual families) can find themselves having to take on the main bread winner family role, even though they may prefer to be the primary carer.

What’s more, women are more likely than men to have requests for flexible work approved, while men’s requests are more likely to be denied.

By accessing flexible work, women also often become responsible for even more unpaid labour in the home. If a woman is working flexibly, it is often assumed she can have dinner on, clean the house, pick up the kids from school, ferry them from activity to activity (although obviously not at the moment), and all the other myriad tasks that keep households running.

In normal times, so much of this unpaid labour was invisible, housework only noticed when it wasn’t done and school homework absorbed into the business of everyday life.  Not anymore.

Now that everyone is working from home together, perhaps can we establish a new paradigm for (heterosexual) families to divide up all these tasks in a more equitable way?  

Last year, DCA released Let’s Share the Care which was a call to action for employers, families and the government to end the gender pay gap by enabling women and men in Australian families to ‘share the care’ more equitably.

In that report, we called on the Government to ensure affordable, available, flexible and accessible universal childcare. We called on employers to make sure flexible work is available to anyone for any reason, and called on families to renegotiate in their home who does what when it comes to caring and household management so this is shared equitably and women and men have equal opportunity to work, stay employed and hold better jobs.

The Government is currently providing free childcare, and men and women are both accessing work from home. But there’s more to do.

Workplaces can help by implementing initiatives that encourage gender equality in caregiving. DCA’s research has shown that using communications to make it explicit that your organisation understands and places priority on both women and men as caregivers, or to make the role of men as caregivers visible and provide support for this through formal policies, can be really effective.

But to really re-engineer the way in which unpaid labour is done, families need to take the opportunity now to look at the assumptions we all hold about who does what and why (not based on gendered assumptions). Household labour, and home-schooling, needs to be treated like any other work task, and shared accordingly.  

In the long run, this will mean that women will be able to participate more fully in the workplace and men can start to do their bit in the raising of children and the running of a household and they may just get some more work-life balance for themselves as well.

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