Why feminism in the care sector can help transform Australia's economy instead of professional feminism?


Why feminism in the care sector can help transform Australia's economy instead of professional feminism?

This piece is an excerpt from Kristine Ziwica's upcoming book, Leaning Out, which will be published in September as part of The Crikey Read series.

Sam Mostyn, an independent business director, a longtime supporter of equality for women, and the current leader of the advocacy group Chief Executive Women, arrived at the National Press Club on November 11, 2021, to give what would later be heralded as a groundbreaking speech.

Mostyn stated that she will share her observations after "a relentless two years of women trying to deal with the upheaval to their world created by COVID." The important lessons about "what Australia could — and should — look like as we emerged from one of the most disruptive and hard periods in our history" will be extrapolated from those observations, she pledged.

It came as no surprise that Mostyn was given such a prominent platform at the National Press Club to discuss these issues and plot a course forward given the pandemic's disproportionate impact on women and Australia's relatively recent feminist awakening that culminated in the March4Justice rallies across the country.

The topics of women in leadership and on boards, which have dominated the corporate feminist agenda for more than ten years, were presumably what many listeners were expecting to hear in a speech from Chief Executive Women. But Mostyn had a radical surprise in store: she would have a laser-like focus on care, the so-called "care economy" and "care infrastructure," in particular the low pay and subpar working conditions that are the distinguishing features of the care industries, which are predominately dominated by women and include aged care, early years education and care, and disability support services.

Mostyn phrased her comments in reference to Australia's reputation as a fortunate nation. Australia likes to refer to itself as the "Lucky Country... and yet among our many natural resources, the unpaid (and low-paid) work of women has perhaps been the most underappreciated, undervalued, she remarked. We have been fortunate to profit from that for such a long time.

Mostyn continued, "We hardly ever hear how prosperity, economic performance, and care go hand in hand. "They are the cornerstone of our future success and are intimately intertwined."

The challenge was laid down. Mostyn's speech, according to her, was intended to "place care at the centre of the economy." At home, I was astounded while watching.

A "care feminism" that grappled with the crucial role that cares, and care infrastructure, play in our economy—it is the work that makes it possible for other women to work—represents a shift from the lean-in, "career feminism" that had dominated mainstream Australian feminist discourse for nearly ten years. Mostyn's speech marked this transition.

Numerous economists also claim that it is becoming a bigger and bigger portion of the economy every year. The Grattan Institute estimates that over the next five years, job growth will primarily occur in the services sector, primarily in the healthcare sector, where 90 per cent of women are already employed. In addition, it is anticipated that there will be much fewer jobs in the traditionally male-dominated sectors of agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and mining. Even though the economy has been shifting right in front of our eyes, it appears like some people haven't noticed.

In plain sight

Mostyn's argument was that this was the direction of the economy and that promoting a long-overdue change in the way we view care would be beneficial from both a social and economic standpoint. The Australia Institute calculated that a $1 million public investment in education, health, and construction would result in a small (1.2 jobs) employment growth in contrast to the female-dominated health sector (10.2 jobs). For the same amount of stimulus expenditure, there are 10 employments in education and care compared to one in more conventional "infrastructure." However, the Coalition government kept funnelling all the fiscal stimulus toward conventional hard-hat/high-vis businesses at the height of the pandemic, leaving women out. There certainly didn't seem to be a scarcity of hard heads wearing hard hats in the Coalition government.

Mostyn was also interested in delving into the horrifying way that our society undervalues the crucial caregiving labour done by women just because it is done by women. The social dividend of improved community wellbeing and the human capital development and productivity dividend, which would increase long-term productivity by allowing more individuals, typically women, with care duties to work, are opportunities we are not taking advantage of. She was aware that compassionate women might not be interested in "leaning in" to the business leadership posts that are often held by members of her organisation. Thank God they did not adhere to that one particular concept of "success" in the workplace for women. Because without our caregivers, our society would not offer our elderly and disabled loved ones even the most basic levels of care or the best possible start in life for our kids.

It was past time for women in leadership positions to demonstrate their support for the predominately female care workforce. In my opinion, some traditional feminist solidarity was long overdue.

Where are we now?

Anne Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation, made a similar, damning conclusion about the care industry and care infrastructure in a 2021 column for The New York Times, focusing on how little executive women have prioritised them. Slaughter's NYT article, "Rosie Could Be a Riveter Because of a Care Economy," berated the more recent generation of corporate feminists for not emphasising care enough.

Care has value and visibility that go well beyond what is typically considered infrastructure. The core issue facing 21st-century feminism has been far too long downplayed or disregarded by prominent women, particularly wealthy white women who have been able to take advantage of their privilege due to race and class, according to Slaughter. "Career feminism has historically been prioritised over care feminism. While breaking down glass barriers to become the first woman in a traditionally male-dominated position may be more glamorous and newsworthy, both are essential if we are ever to achieve true gender equality.

Mostyn's lecture was a much-needed diversion from the prevalent career feminism and the bold new vanguard of care feminism in Australia. Finally, the crucial topics of the worth of providing care and the worth of women's paid and unpaid caregiving were moved from the periphery of the discussion to the centre. And it was symptomatic of how mainstream care feminism was quickly becoming and the potential influence it may have that this clear statement was coming from the president of Chief Executive Women, a group normally associated with career feminism.

But as there always are, trailblazers helped pave the way for this time, both in Australia and other parts of the world.

Those who came before 

Decades before Mostyn spoke, feminists were advancing the cause of valuing women's unpaid and paid care work in policy and economics circles. This work—childcare, senior care, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and domestic logistics—was initially referred to as "reproductive labour" but is now more commonly referred to as the "mental load." Basically, all the tasks that women perform are unpaid or for meagre compensation in their own homes or care facilities.

The idea was first put forth by Italian Marxist feminist Silvia Federici, who in 1972 launched the Wages for Housework movement. Federici founded the American chapter of Wages for Housework and wrote her own seminal essay, Wages Against Housework, in 1975. Both women were influenced by another Italian feminist, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and the American activist Selma James, who argued that by working for free in the home, women were creating the labour force that capitalism exploited for profit.

In his essay, Federici stated that "to declare that we demand salaries for housework is to reveal the truth that housework is already money for capital, that capital has manufactured and earns money out of cooking, laughing, and fucking." In addition, it demonstrates that we have cooked, grinned, and fucked over the years—not because it was simpler for us than it was for anyone else, but rather because we had no other option. The constant smiling has deformed our faces.

Federici was harsh in his response to the claim that women should perform this labour for free as "labourers of love" since they are inherently better suited to caregiving. She argued that it was not "natural" for care to be the sole domain of one gender or for some people to be oppressed by an economic system that benefited a select few; rather, they were simply conventions of an all-encompassing economic system that had grown to be so prevalent that it was difficult to imagine an alternative.

Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand economist, took up the cause and wrote the groundbreaking book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth, which was released in 1988. The book examined how "life-sustaining" unpaid labour, or the "reproductive labour" that Federici and her generation spoke about, is excluded and rendered invisible by mainstream economics and the structures on which current estimations of gross domestic product (GDP) are based.

In 1978, Waring was chosen to lead the Public Expenditure Committee of the New Zealand government. This encounter made her aware of how marginalised and invisible women's experiences were in the policy-making process, despite the fact that as half the population, they had a significant impact on the powerful committee's spending decisions. Waring wanted access to data from all government agencies regarding the effects of gender on spending choices. She also questioned a Treasury representative about the exclusion of women's unpaid employment from GDP. The System of National Accounts of the United Nations served as the foundation for GDP calculations.

According to a 2018 profile in The Monthly, Waring commented, "Right, I want to see the regulations." However, it turned out that neither Australia nor New Zealand had a copy of the UN's National Accounts. Waring told The Monthly, "So, all these countries were using the United Nations System of the National Accounts, these rules that run the entire data that everyone uses, without anyone having read them.

Later, Waring visited New York to learn more about the System of National Accounts. She read a 1953 edition that carelessly disregarded women's unpaid work as being "of little or no consequence," and it was a soul-destroying moment. According to her, GDP is built on "an ideology of applied patriarchy" because it excludes the unpaid labour of one gender. The meaning of important human actions is lost.

Despite Waring's work leading to revisions to the System of National Accounts in 1993 and 2008, the exclusion of women's unpaid work persisted despite the National Accounts' inclusion of a series of satellite accounts that valued women's unpaid labour while always sitting alongside GDP.

It has been calculated that Australia's unpaid care work is worth $650.1 billion, or 50.6 per cent of GDP. As a result, it is bigger than any other industry in the official economy in Australia. Three mining industries' worth of value is represented by that.

Others have made this subject the focus of their entire careers, such as US-based Nancy Folbre, professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Political Economy Research Institute. Folbre was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1998 for her research into the care sector, which she characterised as business conducted in homes and markets, and how it was an essential component of the economy while functioning differently from other sectors. Folbre stated in a 2021 interview with The New York Times that "you can't assess the efficiency of a daycare centre the way you would, say, a car plant... the incentives are nothing alike." "The profits don't just go to the proprietor of the centre. Instead, society as a whole, together with the parents of the children, benefits.

Ai-jen Poo, an American labour activist and the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, used the term "infrastructure" in her 2015 book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, nearly two decades after Folbre received the Genius Grant.

Poo remarked, "We should be able to develop appropriate care options for everyone if we can deliver water and power to every home in the country. What could be more essential if the definition of infrastructure is that which supports commerce and economic activity?

The book lays forth a plan for how America might become a more compassionate country, offers fixes for the ailing healthcare industry, and creates chances for women, immigrants, and the unemployed. Poo's book, which was a best-seller, introduced the concept of care and care feminism to the feminist agenda of the present. She declared, "Care is the path and the answer to a better future for all of us."

By 2019, people were paying attention to those who had long raised the alarm about the care crisis. The four female senators who campaigned for president included the care economy in their platforms, drawing attention to the problem before the pandemic brought it into even clearer focus.

The newly elected Biden administration's pandemic recovery plans for 2020 tightly woven care as "infrastructure." As part of a $2 trillion package he presented in March, President Biden included funding for home-based care for the elderly and the disabled under the heading of infrastructure. The following month, he proposed $225 billion for childcare, universal early education and care, and increased money for paid family leave. The Care Economy Business Council, a coalition of nearly 200 companies from a variety of industries, was established by Time's Up in May with the goal of reimagining the nation's caregiving infrastructure so that people could go back to work and create a stronger, more resilient economy. This initiative received the support of business leaders.

Governments and businesses could now recognise the need to actively engage in the care sector and, as a result, valued the sector more highly, viewing it as a crucial component of the economy rather than just a side job that women do because they enjoy it.

This change has been greatly aided here in Australia by Elizabeth Hill, an associate professor of political economy at the University of Sydney and co-convenor of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable.

Hill informed me, "It is really incredible that we have arrived here. We used to be a voice in the wilderness, but today we have so many friends and colleagues of all ideologies who share the points we've been making for a very long time. and creating them using strong methods and extremely strong platforms.

It is enlightening, said Hill. “See? All along, we were correct.

However, I could think back to a time not too long ago when this was unquestionably not the case and the terrifying predictions of what would happen—and did happen—if we did not change course.

Caring time bomb

More than ten years ago, when I was still employed by the UK's Equal Opportunity Commission, a policy officer presented a study to me on the underappreciation of women's labour. She hoped that since I was in charge of the media at the time, I could garner some attention for this bland-sounding yet crucially significant feminist problem.

About one-fifth of the gender wage difference in Australia is attributable to undervaluing women's labour, yet this topic is rarely brought up outside of the most serious policy circles. Similar circumstances existed at the time in the UK. The EOC report issued a warning that the underappreciation of women's labour was fueling "a caring time bomb." Since then, those words and that stern warning have stuck with me.

The fact that industries with a female preponderance are regarded less than those with a male preponderance is exactly what is meant by the undervaluing of women's work. Working in a field where women predominate can result in wage reductions of up to 9%. Nowhere is it more evident than in the helping professions, where we have for far too long expected women to labour menial jobs as "labourers of love" for pitiful wages. As our aged care facilities, early childhood sector, disabilities sector, and nursing struggled to manage every day throughout the epidemic, the devastating results of that were apparent.

The "caring time bomb" that the EOC paper had forewarned of more than a decade earlier had reached the end of its fuse. Moreover, the results have been horrifying.

According to research from 2021, Australia was on the verge of an elderly care workforce crisis due to low pay, stress, and unnecessary paperwork. According to the survey, 65 per cent of employees plan to leave the residential aged care profession during the next five years, signalling a "mass exodus."

Those ominous forecasts came true by the summer of 2022, during the Omicron wave. In light of the shocking reports of neglect brought on by understaffing and the fact that more aged care residents died from COVID-19 in January 2022 than in the entire prior year, industry groups and unions jointly made an appeal to the federal government for assistance in resolving the severe staffing shortages. The proposal for the federal government to send the military to residential nursing homes is the most obvious indication of this desperation.

The January 2022 Omicron wave was also having an impact on the daycare industry. Due to COVID-19, 420 childcare facilities across Australia had to close, and more were issuing closure notices due to staff shortages and declining enrollment. In order to resolve the situation, it was suggested in February that the federal government inject $1 billion into the industry. More than one in eight daycare centres operated for at least a year without complying with legal staffing requirements thanks to waivers from the sector's quality regulator. As a mom of two children, I personally dare not consider the potential consequences of understaffed childcare facilities. It's just too upsetting.

To demand better pay and working conditions, thousands of disgruntled nurses in New South Wales went on strike for the first time in more than ten years in the 75 per cent female-dominated healthcare industry. They marched against the Industrial Relations Commission's directives to stop the action because their feelings were so strong. Keep clapping for the caregivers, was their message. More is required than that.

According to Mostyn, Australia was a "fortunate country" to have taken advantage of these women's willingness to work for little to no compensation, as she stated in her speech at the National Press Club. But it was obvious that Australia's good fortune was now running out.

People in Australia were able to make a more direct connection than they had previously been able to between the undervaluing of women's care work and their own lives, the lives of their children, the lives of their elderly relatives, and the lives of their disabled friends and family.

The unlikely coalition of Women for Progress in early 2022, a group of well-known women from various backgrounds and experiences, was a blatant indicator of this change and new momentum towards care feminism. Their goal was to highlight the role of women and girls in the COVID-19 recovery as a crucial policy issue for the government. Members of the committee included former foreign minister Julie Bishop, an icon of the Australian women's movement, Wendy McCarthy, ACTU president Michele O'Neil, and Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott. Notably, Sam Mostyn of Chief Executive Women was also a part of it.

One of their demands was unprecedented investment in Australia's infrastructure for caring, including more funding for early childhood education and fair compensation for those (mainly women) who performed crucially, dare we say critical, care labour.

The transition from career feminism to care feminism was well underway by the beginning of 2022, which was long overdue. It goes without saying that a large number of caregivers, both paid and unpaid, should not have had to endure such a high cost to their physical and emotional health during the epidemic to help spur this rethink, but we have arrived at a very different place. This has excellently prepared us to reevaluate some of the issues that are essential to a fresh deal for working women who have not been at the forefront of the lean-in agenda.

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