To the men who prefer women not to work: It is unconscionable

A memo to the “men who prefer women not to work”: It’s unconscionable & archaic

“Mothers who don’t really need the money shouldn’t work”.

“A working mother can establish as good a relationship with her children as a mother who doesn’t work for pay.”

“It is alright for a mother to have a child as a single parent even if she doesn’t want a stable relationship with a man.”

“It is better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman can take care of the home and the children.”

These statements alone make me bristle.

The fact they don’t appear in the reverse is jarring, even knowing there is a reason for this.

These are among the attitudes tested in the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey.

It is the only nationally representative household longitudinal study, following the same individuals and households since 2001. Part of its immense value lies in the fact the same statements and the same households have been interviewed over 15 years.

The responses are as close as we can get to tracking social attitudes, particularly about work and family, in real time.

The good news is that despite the fact men still prefer women not to work, we are progressing: across the board there have been positive shifts in the way we view working women.

The proportion of people who agree that women shouldn’t work if they don’t need the money has declined. So too has the percentage of people who agree that men as breadwinners and women as homemakers is the ideal household model.

At the same time, a greater proportion of Australians disagree that pre-school and childcare is detrimental to kids.

It is here that I will confess that I am truly, madly, deeply ungrateful. And a little mad.

Because while these shifts are positive, and certainly preferable to sliding backwards, let’s not kid ourselves. These changes are miniscule.

They are akin to a few tiny seeds thrown to a flock of birds, half the population no less, in need of several years’ worth of proper meals.

Consider this. Australia educates women better than any other country in the world. According to the World Economic Forum we rank first out of 144 countries for the educational opportunities we offer women.

We have held that rank since 2006 when the WEF began undertaking its annual study of the gender gap that exists in 144 countries. It examines the relative gap between men and women in four key areas: education, economics, politics and health.

Back in 2006 Australia’s overall rank was 15. In 2016? It was 46th. We have slipped backwards every year since the survey began.

We fare particularly badly in the realm of economic participation and politics.

Despite educating women better than 143 other countries, women in Australia struggle to effectively participate in the workforce, which means they struggle to attain economic independence. In 2016 Australia ranked 55th for women’s workforce participation, a figure that has also steadily slid back throughout the past decade.

It is counter-intuitive and suggests something occurs for women between education and work.

Blaming babies is tempting but it’s worth specifying that women in the 54 countries that better facilitate women working are also biologically equipped for having children.

The difference is, many other countries have more progressive attitudes than we do.

In many other countries the idea of men and women being jointly responsible for raising children isn’t hypothetical. It is embedded.

It is accommodated in communities, workplaces, parental leave policies and the existence and provision of high quality affordable childcare. In big and small ways, other countries have created and pulled different levers to encourage and support gender equality. Men and women are breadwinners: men and women are caregivers.

Australia hasn’t made that shift and the cost is catastrophic.

A study released by Per Capita and ASU last month showed this once again.

The price too many women are paying for caring, for being directly and indirectly discriminated against, for being unable to work as much as they would like, or bearing the cost of raising their family, is poverty.

That is fact and it isn’t widely understood or appreciated.

It was glaringly apparent when reading through the HILDA findings and was evident in the statements that weren’t asked.

Statements about whether poverty is the right price for women to pay for spending their lives caring? For undertaking the unpaid work that is critical to our society, and the economy, that is completely unvalued?

Statements about whether it is best for everyone involved if fathers commit to sharing the caring responsibilities. Or splitting their wage and superannuation if they don’t support their partner working. Or whether women would prefer men not to work.

Do men who would prefer women not to work really believe financial security isn’t important? Is financial dependence, and insecurity,  something they are happy to submit their wives, sisters, aunts, mothers, daughters, co-workers to as a matter of course?

It’s unconscionable and archaic.

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