27 September 2023

Unpaid work: Division lands heavily on women

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Leigh Sales, Laura Francis, and Kirsten Robb* say new research has revealed a stark contrast in how domestic labour is divided in opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.

For Maree and Mel Anderson, making sure domestic work and caring for their children is fairly evenly split has been one of the secrets of a long, happy relationship.

“It definitely does make for a more harmonious relationship.

“Not that we’re perfect in any way, shape, or form. I want to make that clear as well,” Maree said.

For the same-sex couple, division of labour in the house is not about gender-based assumptions of who does what, it’s about what makes sense.

“It’s a clean slate. When we first moved out together, I suppose we just sort of worked out what we liked and didn’t like and built on it from there,” Mel said.

Maree said it’s a model they hoped their children Stella, five, and Jimmy, two, absorbed.

“I think they’re growing up and seeing a fairly equal partnership,” she said.

Within opposite-sex couples, nearly half of all household tasks are always or usually done by the female, compared to only 10 per cent by the male.

New data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, provided to 7.30 for its Why Women Are Angry series, shows that the division of domestic labour continues to land heavily on women.

In households that include children, women always or usually do up to 60 per cent of tasks but falls to just 5 per cent for the man.

‘Very gendered patterns’

Jennifer Baxter, author of the Australian Institute of Family Studies research, said she was not surprised by the clear gendered distribution of housework in the data.

“This comes out of every single survey, every bit of research that you do.

“Before COVID, during COVID, there’s very gendered patterns in who does what in the home, which are still very much tied to what’s happening in the workplace as well,” Dr Baxter said.

The data also showed most males were satisfied with the way household tasks were divided between them and their partner (74 per cent satisfied or very satisfied) compared to 52 per cent of females being satisfied.

“The dissatisfaction among females was particularly apparent in families when both partners worked full-time hours and the female did more,” Dr Baxter said.

“Those are the families really feeling the pinch around trying to manage their work and their relationships.”

Journalist Annabel Crabb examined this issue in her book The Wife Drought and said it has proven stubbornly difficult to change.

“Women have changed the way that they live their lives hugely in the last half a century.

“They have flooded into the workforce,” Crabb explained.

“What they haven’t done is move out of their domestic roles.

“They just took on that extra work in addition to the domestic workload they already had.”

Crabb said studies of same-sex couples showed there tended to be a more egalitarian division of household labour because traditional gender stereotypes weren’t at play.

Unpaid care work

The unequal burden is also highly evident in unpaid care work, whether managing children, an adult sibling with additional needs or an elderly parent.

Those responsibilities land disproportionately on women.

Deloitte has found that of the 2.65 million carers in Australia, 57 per cent are female.

If you look at primary carers only, that figure rises to 72 per cent.

For every hour an Australian man spends on unpaid care work, an Australian woman spends one hour and 48 minutes, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

The heavy load women carry at home often causes them to miss out on promotions at work, or to actively avoid seeking them for fear they will not be able to juggle their responsibilities.

This translates into economic inequality between men and women, particularly in retirement.

“We’ve spent so much time and money looking at how women behave at work and why aren’t women putting up their hands for promotions or, you know, asking for more money or more responsibilities and so on,” Crabb said.

“And you can’t really make sense of that behaviour until you understand what’s happening to that woman outside working hours.”

Research undertaken by organisations including the Grattan Institute has shown that COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation with unpaid work, particularly as a result of remote learning, being disproportionately borne by women.

Chair of Diversity Council Australia, Ming Long, said that had been disappointing.

“What I found quite disheartening through all the research on COVID was that women, even though we were working from home, for those in industries that could, we were still picking up the additional workload even though we had more men at home,” she said.

*Leigh Sales anchors 7.30 on ABC television. Laura Francis is a producer at the ABC’s current affairs program 7.30. Kirsten Robb is a producer for the ABC’s current affairs program 7.30.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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