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Why We Need To Change The Meaning of "Work"

Why We Need To Change The Meaning of "Work"

This feature is dedicated to our #NoChangeNoFuture initiative. From the Women's March, to Australia voting yes to same sex marriage, and the #MeToo movement, 2017 taught us to look beyond ourselves and come together as a collective of powerful women who are writing our own history. Join us as we cancel setting one-dimensional personal resolutions this January and commit to being the change we want to see. Because without change, there is no future.

"So, do you work?" she asks. I bristle at the question.

In the fifteen months since my daughter was born, I have lost count of the number of times I've been in this situation. I am quietly seething. I know she doesn't mean anything by it, but I am quivering with fury.

"I work out of the home three days a week," comes my rehearsed reply. "And the rest of the time I work looking after my daughter".

Not for the first time, the great feminist victory of women working outside the home is feeling rather hollow.

"Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day," said Simone de Beauvoir in her classic feminist work The Second Sex.

"The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present... Eating, sleeping, cleaning — the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won."

So de Beauvoir and her contemporaries, the illuminating icons of the second wave feminist movement, fought and won the battle for women to escape the role of housewife. We can be doctors and lawyers, mechanics and plumbers. We can fight for our nation and represent it abroad. We can run corporations and countries.

But despite this, one thing hasn't changed: we're still doing the bulk of the housework and child care.

There are a few important caveats: in this piece, we're focusing on heterosexual couples who have children. There were always a proportion of families where both people worked, but that is higher than it has been in the past. And of course, every family is different. But overall, women in these couples are on average doing far more of the unpaid work.

Women are doing more work than ever before outside the home, and still doing the bulk of work inside the home.

Statistics bear this out. Research shows that when men and women cohabitate the amount of work done by women goes up, while the amount done by men goes down. ABS data shows that when women work full time, they still do a disproportionate amount of the work at home. In couples where both partners work out of the house full time, men spent an average of 20:32 hours doing unpaid work (such as housework and child care) each week, compared to women, who do a massive 41:32 hours of unpaid work.

So women are doing more work than ever before outside the home, and still doing the bulk of work inside the home.

This is partially because rather than being empowered to choose to work — or to stay at home and focus on the domestic labour of child-rearing — we are now faced with an economy that doesn't just allow women to work (albeit for less money than their male counterparts), it demands it. We can't just trade domestic work for paid work, we have to do both. The severely unaffordable housing in many Australian cities makes living on a single income virtually impossible.

But domestic work is still undervalued, in part because it often doesn't involve an exchange of currency. Why is it that if you buy takeaway for dinner, the work that goes into preparing the meal has economic value, but if you cook for your family, it doesn't? That looking after someone else's kids as a child care worker is recognised as work but being the primary carer for your own children isn't?

Instead of a world in which we are able to make choices about whether we work at home of out of it, we've simply been given more to do.

All this doesn't consider mental load either: the work of making a household run. When you're raising children, that can be a mammoth task: organising who does day care drop off and pick up, when you're next visiting grandparents and sending birthday cards to family. As the web comic Emma so brilliantly explained, those tasks are all work, and it's work largely done by women.

Which brings us back to that question, innocently asked but laden with value. "Do you work?"

Yes, I do. But I'm only paid for a fraction of it.

All work — whether it's paid work outside the home; looking after for children, elderly parents or others who need care; managing the house, scrubbing floors or cooking dinner — has value. It is all part of keeping our society functioning. Acknowledging unpaid domestic work as real work is a tiny step forward towards equality (de-gendering it is the next step!), but it's an essential one. We can't address what we don't recognise.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Sheila Gim
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