Unpaid work: The multi-billion dollar question of who cooks, cleans & cares

The multi-billion dollar question of who cooks, cleans & cares

“You’re so lucky you have a brother,” a blonde-haired boy informed his younger sister cheerfully. “I’ll always have to do more chores than you.”

“Why?” she asked with a scrunched up face.

“Boys always do,” he shrugged.

They weren’t fighting. It was a good-natured exchange with the boy simply relaying something he had obviously accepted as fact to his sibling.

I can’t confirm their ages because I don’t know the kids, I just happened to overhear their conversation in the carpark outside the supermarket. My guess is that he might have been 10 and she might have been eight or nine.

I’m not sure where he got his wires crossed but I do know he’s potentially setting his sister up for considerable disappointment.

Without radical change she will do far more chores over the course of her life than he will.

The most recent figures in Australia come from Victoria, from a Deloitte report commissioned by the state government, where it was found that in 2018 women do 32.9 hours of unpaid work and care per week compared to 19.8 hours per week for men.

On Tuesday the ABC’s chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici published a comprehensive report calling for unpaid work and care to be counted.

The Modelling the Value of Unpaid Work and Care report by Deloitte, published in October last year, showed that in Victoria alone unpaid work is worth $205.58 billion, or the equivalent of 50% of gross state product.

It illustrates in cold hard figures the ‘chasm’ between the lives of men and women in Australia and Alberici’s report makes the case for closing it.

As long as women are burdened with doing the bulk of the necessary, unpaid work in society their capacity to access paid work will suffer. The cost is too high – as evidenced by the fact women over 50 are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia – and levelling the unpaid work undertaken by men and women will ease this.

As convenient as it is to all the beneficiaries women doing more unpaid work is not an immutable reality. Cooking and cleaning and managing households are not, technically, biological imperatives for all women.

Men are every bit as equipped to vacuum and mop and soak stained uniforms and buy food and prepare food (the list goes on) as women are. The fact that historically they’ve done those tasks less is not a justification for that ongoing forever more.

As Alberici points out, narrowing the gap and creating more gender equal communities, workplaces and families is absolutely possible. Other countries like Sweden and Iceland have made measurable gains for women by intentionally introducing policy changes, to parental leave for example, specifically to engineer gender equality.

Change is absolutely possible but venture an opinion on this matter on social media and the resistance to it is clear.

The status quo is too damn good for some. An alternative in which women don’t happily pick up the cooking, caring and cleaning work we all rely on is too radical for plenty to countenance.

Or is the happy boy I overheard in the carpark on to something? Is a world in which it’s expected that boys will do more chores than girls on its way?

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