Lyn Craig is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Melbourne and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. In her episode of Seriously Social, she speaks with host Ginger Gorman about her brand new research on the division of labour in Australian households.
The pandemic created what experts describe as an unprecedented external shock, forcing homes to temporarily become our primary workplaces as well as the locations where all the care was happening. So, how did dual-earning couples with kids share this load? What happened to men’s and women’s dissatisfaction levels?
In this Q&A, Professor Lyn Craig shares the findings from her latest research and says that while dissatisfaction levels increased for both men and women during the pandemic, it helped pull back the cover on the invisible domestic work being done by women.
What did the domestic division of labour look like inside Australian homes before the pandemic?
Before the pandemic, women were doing more than men. They were much more likely to be working part time and men to be working full-time. But even if they were working full-time, they were still likely to be doing more of the housework, and the unpaid care of children and the elderly and sick as well. That division of labour was not very equal between men and women.
What factors led to this unequal domestic division of labour?
There were pre-existing frictions, and by that I mean that we have arranged some policies in Australia that mean that men and women’s participation in the paid workforce, and in the work of raising children, and looking after others and keeping the household going is structurally organised so that women do more of that than men. That’s partly because of longstanding gender norms, but it’s also to do with the way we arrange our childcare system in Australia.
How has Australia’s childcare system contributed to the imbalance?
Childcare is very expensive. For many women, it’s uneconomic to put their children in childcare for more than two or three days a week. And if they do that, they’re working for no extra take-home pay, which means that not very many of them can afford to take that option. Compared with other countries, our arrangement of paid work participation between men and women is more unequal.
How the pandemic has impacted the division of labour inside Australian homes?
We can see it had quite a big effect on the way people arranged their time. Obviously, many more people were working at home. For households in which both partners have work responsibilities and now growing care and housework responsibilities, [aid work went down a little for both men and women, but unpaid work went up a lot for both men and women.
What’s interesting though is that men’s time went up from a much lower base than women’s and therefore, their increase took them to narrow the gap between women somewhat. But women, before the pandemic, they were doing much more. The time also went up much more for women in absolute terms. And so, they had a higher workload overall than fathers, but there was a closing of the gap in relative terms.
The pandemic narrowed the gap between the time women and men spent on care and housework responsibilities, but have we got any closer to closing the gap?
The numbers show that domestic care remained disproportionately high for women. Before the pandemic, men were averaging about two hours and 10 minutes of childcare a day. Women were averaging about three and three-quarter hours. And post the pandemic, men’s had risen to three and a half hours and women’s had risen to over five hours. So, although the differences between those two sets of numbers was narrower afterwards, the amounts were higher for both and they were particularly high for women.
The pandemic exposed women’s invisible labour and the juggle of raising families and trying to stay in the workforce, which men experienced too. Will this lead to a shift? Or is the economy too dependent on women’s free labour?
It’s a very difficult balance. It’s absolutely true that the value of unpaid labour in any country, including Australia, if you add it up, the time inputs and the worth of what’s produced, then it would amount to 50% of GDP. And there are some countries that publish these figures as satellite accounts to the GDP. And there’s quite a push, in the United Nations particularly, to value unpaid care work and make sure that the economic contribution it makes is recognised.
However, if you move all the women into the paid workforce full-time, then you are moving productive labour out of the unpaid economy, which is something governments rely on to raise children and reproduce the workforce, to perform aged care, and look after the sick, the elderly at home and those with a disability. And the less families are able to do that in a sustainable way, the more services the Government would need to provide.
Women need the opportunity to reach their own potential and not be relegated to the private sphere providing this unpaid work. It’s a waste for the women themselves if they can’t reach their full potential and it’s a waste nationally. It makes it a bad investment for the Government. They’re not getting the benefit from it.
Is it a case of men not doing their fair share at home, or are they not given the opportunity?
The expectation with workplaces seems to be that the women will do it. And so, we’ve got this system where women going part time or taking casual jobs and giving up security in order to have flexibility so they can fit their employment around their care, that seems to be regarded as kind of to be expected. And it’s less so for men and it’s true that it can be difficult for them in workplaces to put their hand up for parental leave or go part time. They can be judged for not being committed to the workplace.
What can we learn from same-sex couples?
One of the things that heterosexual couples have to deal with is the normative expectations of each person’s role. And so, if you take that away, then you’ve levelled some aspects of the playing field quite a lot. Although there’s been a lot of assumptions over the years that men earn more, so that’s why they are the ones that keep going to work while women go back to the home when the kids are little, that’s compounding as well. Obviously, if women withdraw from the workforce more than men, then their earnings are going to fall behind.
So, in same-sex couples, you wouldn’t necessarily have that and choices could be made on more individual grounds than stereotypical gender grounds that seem to affect us all as groups of people.
So, what’s next?
Following your employment goals and raising your families are both extremely important. It’s stressing a lot of women out and it’s not manageable. And to have that evident to a few more people, including the women’s partners, how hard it is can only be a good thing. And even if we go back more quickly than we’d like to the previous situation, you can’t unsee it. More of us can say, ‘Look, it wasn’t working before. It didn’t work during the pandemic. Men were doing more, but women were doing even more. We need to arrange our society so that we can work and care and let our women participate in both on equal terms.’
Tune in to E10 Seriously Social podcast: ‘The domestic battleground created by a pandemic’