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PISA2018 – 3.4 Marilyn Waring and Women’s Work


The following is extracted from the important article by Anne Manne in The Monthly of May 2018, “Making women’s unpaid work count“. It recounts Marilyn Waring’s views on care and the unfinished revolution. The impact of the campaigns of people like Waring, and of writers like Germaine Greer (“The Female Eunuch”) cannot be underestimated as is obvious listening to many prominent women and their responses.

Attending the World Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1980 was “the next really major change” in Waring’s consciousness-raising. Although the pro-choice Waring was unpopular with Catholics and conservatives, Muldoon had no option but to send the only woman then in government as part of the delegation. Confronting the reality of women’s lives around the globe, Waring suddenly saw that the invisibility of unpaid female labour was a much bigger human rights issue than mothering and housework. Women subsistence farmers worked from before dawn until after dark, carrying water and firewood long distances, caring for families in conditions of poverty, but only their husbands were considered farmers. Waring saw the importance of language in reframing things, of getting “your foot in the door” to further transformation for “the next feminist coming behind”.

One conference document talked about the colonisation and exploitation of and discrimination against the global South by the North. Waring slipped in a paragraph about the exploitation of women, arguing that they were discriminated against because the value of their unpaid care and household and reproductive work was made invisible. While the idea that reproduction was work proved a sticking point for the committee working on the final document, “the phrase ‘men don’t die in childbirth’ rocketed around the whole place,” Waring says. “Around the world, maternal mortality was huge.” The chair, a “real United Nations pro from Mexico”, said flatly, “It’s hard labour.” The phrase was left in.

One problem with satellite accounts is that unpaid work is usually counted only at the minimum wage for unskilled workers over a 40-hour week, what Waring describes as “the ghettos where you find women”, rather than properly valuing the skilled labour of high-quality child care or elder care. Waring now thinks time use surveys are better at capturing both the gendered nature of unpaid work and its importance in understanding our stalled revolution. Men do some of this work, but women do much more of it, and it is this unequal load that is the issue.

Australia was one of the first countries to champion time use studies, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics stopped doing them after 2006. Lyn Craig, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Melbourne, is Australia’s leading researcher into time use, and she agrees with Waring on the importance of unpaid work. In July last year The Sydney Morning Herald described her as being “at her wit’s end” with frustration when the ABS decided not to do another survey due to a public service savings drive. “The expectations on young women and people in general to manage everything, it is all too much, it threatens mental health and it should be made visible,” she said. John Goss, an adjunct associate professor in health economics at the University of Canberra’s Health Research Institute, pointed out that “Our GDP and our social and political commentary focuses on the three hours per day we spend, on average, at paid work … The five hours 20 minutes per day [on average] we spend on unpaid activity is seen as less important … but our world would collapse without [it].”

In March this year, Tanya Plibersek announced the Australian Labor Party’s commitment, if elected, to giving the ABS the $15.2 million it would need for time use surveys in 2020 and 2027. Citing the 2016 census figures, Plibersek said the average woman did 14 hours of housework and family organisation per week and the average man fewer than five, while women did three quarters of the child care, and 70 per cent of caring for elderly or disabled family members or friends. “The Australian economy, Australian society, rests upon women’s unpaid work,” said Plibersek. “As Marilyn Waring – the founder of feminist economics – once said, ‘What we don’t count, counts for nothing.’”

The consequences of mismeasuring women’s lives can be dire. On International Women’s Day 2016, Time of Our Lives?, a report commissioned by the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, noted that 34 per cent of single women over 60, having spent a lifetime caring for others, lived in “permanent income poverty”. In March this year, the ABC’s 7.30 program was showing that women in their late fifties were 50 per cent more likely than men the same age to have virtually no retirement nest egg. That is not surprising, given that superannuation is a contributory scheme and grows with uninterrupted, lifelong work – which has been the more typical male pattern – rather than the more interrupted work patterns of women’s lives. Australia has among the highest levels of female part-time work in the world, usually shaped around caring for children. The gender pay gap in Australia, revealed by the Diversity Council’s research to be a 17 per cent difference in lifetime wage, is, more than anything else, a “motherhood penalty”.