Why should we put a dollar value on the unpaid work women do? Because it comes at a cost

“There is no need to place a dollar figure on the role of stay at home parents (mum's are not the only ones who take on that role), their 'payment' is the privilege of spending quality time with their child/(children).”

“This is silly. Washing, cleaning and cooking are simply the responsibilities all adults have regardless of being a mum or not. What positive can be achieved from these sorts of arguments apart from fuelling the working vs non working debate?”

“I disagree with the idea of monetising unpaid domestic stuff. Not working and doing one's own housework and looking after one's own children is not a job. Everybody has to do domestic stuff. It's part of being a functioning adult.”

“If we're going to discuss the value of splitting responsibilities more evenly then we need to include responsibility for earning money.”

“I'm a female primary income earner with two children. I think the naïve people are those who consider their partner to be a financial plan.”

“I'm 7 years younger than my partner and have been an on and off SAHM for 13 years. My super is non-existent. I'm going to have to work an extra 20 years after my partner retires to catch up to their super, and possibly longer because I only work part time now. If I had spent that time working, I would have contributed to my super and the small amount I would have earned would have paid childcare fees for someone else to earn their super. But strangers would be raising my children. I'm not kicking up a stink about this, it was my choice, but this situation doesn't seem quite right to me.”

These are a few of the comments that caught my eye in response to the story I wrote yesterday about the market value of a stay at home mum.  ($96,700 a year if you missed it.)  I understand each of them and believe they represent the views that many Australian men and women hold. They reminded me why the bigger picture is so important to discuss.

What is the point of putting a dollar value on the unpaid work that women do? There is no way it will ever be paid so why talk about it? The answer comes down to the cost. And the cost for most parents of exiting paid work is financial security. It’s a cost that women wear more than men. 

Recently we published a story about homelessness and women and how it is often the result of a lifetime accumulating poverty rather than wealth.

How? One way is by stepping out of paid work to undertake unpaid work. To care for children or elderly relatives or to run the household and support a working spouse.

Sometimes women do this because it is what they want and there is no shame in that choice.  Other times women do this because it’s the only available choice.

If they are the 1 in 2 Australian women who have been discriminated against due to pregnancy.

If they haven’t got an employer who is willing to be flexible. If they can’t find appropriate childcare. If their partner earns more than they do, which the persistent gender pay gap renders a real likelihood, and as such their career is compromised.

These are a few of the structural circumstances that can and do conspire against women participating in paid work to the same extent as their male peers. And they feed into one another.

A clear salary penalty arises when a woman has a child, which means if at any point one parent needs to step back from work, it’s most likely to be the woman.  

Last year the Diversity Council Australia reported that mothers experience a 17% loss in wages over a lifetime. They take an average 4% pay cut after the birth of their first child and a 9% cut for each subsequent child. Men, on the other hand, earn more when they become parents.

Last year the New York Times published research that indicates becoming a father translates into an economic win for men and Australian research confirms the same dynamic here.

It’s the beginning of a financial wedge between men and women that can and does flourish over time. If a woman’s career is sacrificed or compromised during the early years of starting a family, what she can earn over the course of her lifetime will be substantially reduced. She will have years without earning any super.

This might not matter if the family’s financial position remains unchanged. If a marriage survives, if illness doesn’t arise, if redundancy is avoided and if the main breadwinner wins enough bread to comfortably support two people in retirement, then at the end of a woman’s life her individual wealth won’t matter.

It will, however, matter greatly if any of those factors arise. If the marriage ends or if the breadwinner loses their job, then the woman’s financial security will be precarious. That is the cost of doing more unpaid work than paid work.

At this point in time because women do the bulk of the unpaid caring work, and subsequently less of the paid work, they bear the biggest burden of this risk. And that’s why putting a dollar figure on their work matters.

All facets of society are the beneficiaries of the unpaid work women do. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates the value of unpaid work in Australia is roughly half our GDP.

Businesses and individuals reap the rewards of having employees unencumbered by caring or domestic duties or being unencumbered by these things. Women pay the price for this. The price of being encumbered by caring and domestic duties is not being paid.

Domestic duties are theoretically ‘adult’ responsibilities but the reality is whether there are children or not, women complete the lion’s share of this work. This is not a hypothetical. It is a fact shown by empirical evidence time and time again.

Neither the privilege nor responsibility of raising children should sit with a mother alone. It is the privilege and responsibility of parents. And yet we are shown time and time again that mothers do the lion’s share of the parenting. 

Mothers arguably reap the emotional rewards of caring for children but emotional rewards don’t buy food, housing or financial security. Paid work is the only thing that buys that.

If the unpaid work was spread evenly between men and women it would be unnecessary to put a price on the domestic work women undertake. If the paid work was distributed more equitably between men and women it would be unnecessary to put a price on the domestic work women undertake. Until those things change it’s a conversation we need to have. 

Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a former editor of Women's Agenda, she is also an editor, journalist and former lawyer. 

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