We must put a dollar value on the unpaid work disproportionately done by women

We must put a dollar value on the unpaid work disproportionately done by women

If you don’t measure it, does it count? We need to put a dollar value on ‘unpaid’ work if we’re going to achieve gender equality. Here’s why the Labor’s Party’s announcement that it will restore ‘Time Use’ studies if elected is so important. 

When it comes to discussions on women’s advancement at work, there’s always one major elephant in the room. And it’s ticking, constantly.

It’s time. But I’m not just talking about the time the World Economic Forum predicts it’ll currently take for the world to achieve gender equality — currently at 217 years.

Rather, I’m talking about gender differences in time spent on ‘unpaid’ work, and how that might be affecting women’s economic security, health and career opportunities.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Marilyn Waring during a workshop session with the Victorian Women’s Trust to discuss ideas for women’s economic security.

Marilyn, considered a founder of feminist economics who is also a former New Zealand MP, repeatedly and passionately stated the importance of time use studies — including how meaningless other efforts to achieve women’s economic security might be if we don’t understand the economic value of ‘unpaid’ work. As she says: “What we don’t count, counts for nothing”.

She later noted at VWT’s Breakthrough 2018 event that such studies play a significant part in a nation realising the significant amount of work women put in at home, and the fact unpaid work is the single largest sector of any nation’s economy.

So it’s encouraging to see today that the Labor Party has announced that if elected, it will provide $15.2 million in funding to the Australian Bureau of Statistics to complete Time Use Surveys in 2020 and 2027. Such a move would be very, very long overdue.

Time Use Surveys provide vital evidence on the paid and unpaid work Australians are completing each day, including on activities like childcare, elder care and housework. They are an essential means for determining the economic value and importance of unpaid work.

That matters especially when you consider the fact women continue to do a disproportionate amount of such work, despite now making up 47% of all people employed in Australia. Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek notes today that women are spending up to 14 hours a week cooking, cleaning and organising families, compared to men who are doing fewer than five hours.

“Women do three quarters of the child care, two thirds of the housework, and 70 per cent of caring for elderly or disabled family members and friends,” she said.

“But Australia has no way of calculating the value to the economy of that unpaid caring work.

“The last time we did the sums – back in 1997 – our unpaid work was worth $261 billion – equivalent to almost half of Australia’s GDP that year.”

Australia is well behind on the collection of Time Use data, with New Zealand, the US and countries across Asia, Europe and Scandinavia continuing to collect such vital information.

This is a problem when it comes to the value we place on caring work and its economic importance in keeping Australia running.

Without understanding this value, we can’t fully acknowledge the work women are doing.

We can’t understand — in economic terms — how such unpaid work might be contributing to the economic insecurity of women — how it hits superannuation and retirement balances, and how it may ultimately be contributing to the fact that older women are now the most at risk category when it comes to homelessness.

We can’t prepare for, and possibly prevent, how such unpaid work might be affecting the health outcomes of women, given recent evidence that the amount of time women spend on being active drops significantly after having kids.

And we can’t fully appreciate just how such unpaid work might affecting career promotion and advancement opportunities of women — and ultimately how it might be contributing to a lack of women represented across business and community leadership.

Appreciating the economic value of such work could also go a long way in providing more opportunities in the home for men. It can aid the shift from unpaid work being considered ‘women’s work’ that will simply get done anyway, to becoming instead that of ‘valuable work’ that ultimately underpins the success of Australia.

Labor’s announcement follows repeated calls for such data from a number of women’s organisations including the National Foundation for Women, Economic Security 4 Women and the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

Let’s get this done and finally put a value on caring work.

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