In November of last year, Sam Mostyn, an independent company director, long-time women’s advocate and the current President of Chief Executive Women, arrived at the National Press Club (NPC) to deliver a landmark address.
Mostyn promised to provide insights from “a relentless two years during which women had been trying to deal with the upheaval to their world caused by Covid”. And she promised to extrapolate from those insights some key lessons regarding “what Australia could – and should – look like as we emerged from one of the most disruptive and challenging periods in our history”.
Given the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on women, and given Australia’s relatively recent feminist re-awakening as women took to the streets to shout “enough” in numbers not seen since the height of second-wave feminism, it came as no surprise that Mostyn was offered such a prominent platform at the National Press Club to canvas these issues and chart a course forward.
What was surprising, however, was Mostyn’s laser-like focus on care, the so -called “care economy” and “care infrastructure” — and not the more traditional, let’s call it “corporate feminist”, domains of women in leadership and women on boards.
Mostyn spoke of the “deep tissue damage to one of the most feminised professions of all, nursing”. And she framed her remarks in terms of Australia’s iconic characterisation as a “Lucky Country”.
The gauntlet was thrown. The whole purpose of Mostyn’s speech, she said, was “to put care at the centre of the economy.”
Watching at home, I was blown away.
I was reminded of a 2021 essay in The New York Times by Anne Marie Slaughter, Chief Executive of the New America Foundation and the author of the 2012 viral Atlantic Monthly essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. Slaughter had also offered a somewhat scathing observation about the lack of investment in a care economy and the extent to which it was not on the agenda of the usual “chief executive women” style groups. Entitled: “Rosie Could Be a Riveter Because of the Care Economy”, Slaughter’s essay scolded the more recent generation of so-called “corporate feminists” for not paying enough attention to care.
“The value and visibility of care goes far beyond the definition of infrastructure,” she wrote.
“It is the central question of 21st-century feminism, and one far too long ignored or downplayed not only by men, but also by many prominent women, particularly wealthy white women who have been able to leverage the privilege of race and class,” wrote Slaughter. “Care feminism has long taken a back seat to career feminism. Advocating for child or elder care may be less glamorous and newsworthy than breaking glass ceilings to become the first woman in a role traditionally reserved for a man, but both are necessary if we are ever to achieve true gender equality.”
Mostyn’s speech at the NPC, to my mind, represented the brave new vanguard of “care feminism” in Australia — and the extent to which it was fast displacing the more dominant neoliberal, corporate or “career feminism” of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” generation.
The Morrison government, however, did not get the memo.
And it has either wilfully or negligently dodged this pertinent message from the vanguard of care feminism in Australia; this week’s Women’s Budget Statement was proof of that. The 2022 Women’s Budget is a #GirlBoss manifesto for “care feminist” times, and the disconnect is jarring.
To illustrate that point, I calculated that there’s a grand total of $348.5 million for various #GirlBoss initiatives designed to “train”, “boost”, “revive”, “support” and “checkpoint” women into leadership positions in “better paid” male dominated industries and entrepreneurship. And those are the “jobs of the future”, the Morrison government boldly proclaims. But there’s nothing – nothing! — to tackle the undervaluing of women’s work in female dominated caring professions, only an insultingly tiny initiative to tackle the ongoing childcare crisis, and a parental leave initiative that will actually cause more harm than good.
Firstly, and pardon my frustrated French, the Morrison government, which is trying to pitch itself as a better steward of the economy, has no f*ing idea what kind of jobs are the “jobs of the future”. They’re not in the declining, “better paid” male dominated industries like construction, they’re in the female dominated service industries where 90 percent of women already work, according to the Grattan Institute. That’s where the majority of jobs growth is predicted.
And — to Mostyn and many other economists point about the need to tackle the traditional undervaluing of women’s work in female dominated, mostly caring “service” professions – they need to become better paid and more secure. As the primary funder in many of these sectors, including aged care, early years education and care, and disability support services, the Morrison government could make that happen, but it hasn’t. That’s repugnant and should be called out.
The Morrison government can boost as many female founders as it likes, it can put countless women through their paces at women of the future type jobs academies as it likes, and it can revive as many mums’ careers as it likes (because, apparently, we still forget how to operate a computer when we have a baby), but at the end of the day someone will still need to do the caring work. Ignoring that reality won’t get us anywhere.
What’s more, while Australia still has some of the most expensive childcare in the OECD and numerous reports have indicated that it’s a drag on women’s employment, the 2022 Women’s Budget Statement offers further funding for just 20 new childcare services. Just twenty new services a few weeks after a new report found 35 percent of the population live in neighbourhoods classified as childcare desserts. Honestly, it’s like they’re spitting in the wind.
And, finally, the $346.1 million over five years on a new parental leave policy is a complete and utter waste of money. While it jettisons the previous “primary” and “secondary” carer categories (okay we did ask for that, thanks), without a use it or lose it provision for dads and anything like a payment at salary replacement rates, we all know no one will use it, or women will now use all of it. It will not do what the Morrison government claims on its’ tin: level the domestic playing field at home by unpacking the gendered divisions in unpaid caring work that take hold in the first few years of a child’s life. In fact, the new scheme will just further entrench it.
If anyone was optimistically hoping for a paradigm shift in this year’s budget for women, we didn’t get it.
As is my habit, I did my annual tally of the number of times the word “choice” appears vs. the word “discrimination”: “choice” 14 times vs. “discrimination” 7 times, 4 of those in Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins job title. This is still a government for whom gender inequality is down to women’s “choices”. And this is still a government married to neo-liberal, “Lean-In” corporate feminist “solutions” while maintaining utter indifference to the experience and needs of those on the margins.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica