Women are worth more than dollars and cents

The future is female. But how far away is that future? The UN are aiming to reach gender equality by 2030. However, the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows that Global Gender Gap Index is widening – they estimate it will take 217 years to get there. Despite millions of people participating in women’s marches this year, the WEF have concluded that the gap is bigger than it was twelve months ago.

Each year the WEF measure the gaps between men and women across four categories: health and survival, educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, and politics empowerment. This year’s report shows that gender parity is going backwards for the first time since the index was created in 2006. While the education gap could be reduced to parity globally within the next 13 years, it is going to take until 2234 for women to have the same economic opportunities as men. Therefore, the only thing that is going to hold women back is their gender.

Despite the unemotive prose interspersed with slabs of data, the report is heartbreaking to read. It is hard not to feel hopeless. How is it that some countries are so close to achieving equality whereas others, including Australia, are falling further behind?

The WEF report presents a simple business case: allow women to work more and the global GDP could increase by US$5.3 trillion by 2025. And that is if we just improve economic participation by 25%. The report concludes that it is foolhardy to overlook what an untapped asset women are. Now that the mineral boom is over could gender equality save the Australian economy? Australian women are worth a bloody motza. Goldman Sachs (2009) are a little more precise in their calculations. They estimate that if Australia had ‘equal full time gender participation in all industries and at all levels of hierarchy’ our GDP would increase by 20%. Australian women could contribute $305 billion to the economy.

There is a slight hitch; if everyone is working full time who is going to look after the kids?

The business case for equality fails to acknowledge that women are already the largest contributors to the GDP.

GDP is a calculation of the total goods and services produced annually. It is an economic tool used to determine the health of a country’s economy. According to Dr Marilyn Waring, GDP should not stand for ‘Gross Domestic Product’ rather it is ‘Gross Domestic Propaganda’. GDP gives a false picture of the economy as it is dodgy accounting. This is because it only measures outputs, the amount of resources required to create goods or services is not calculated. It also omits things that are considered to have no ‘market value’. At its peak, the mining industry accounted for 8.4% of the GDP. Whereas unpaid care work equates to $650, 1 billion or approximately 50.6% of the GDP. And that is a conservative estimate. Yet it is not counted in GDP.

Why is it excluded from calculations? It has been argued that measuring the amount of unpaid work is tricky and inexact. It is not counted to avoid miscalculations. By this reasoning, it is far more accurate to assume children, geriatrics and the unwell all fend for themselves.

The inherent biases of GDP is not news – Dr Marilyn Waring started researching the worth of a woman’s work over thirty years ago – it just continues to be studiously ignored. The Chief Economist at The Australia Institute, Dr. Richard Denniss said it plainly at the 2016 Breakthrough conference, ‘The inequality in the Australian labour market is not some accident. It’s not some undiscovered problem that is yet to percolate to the top of the political agenda because of the lack of evidence. A lot of powerful people in Australia are entirely happy with it. That is what you’re up against.’

These powerful people include the Australian Government, who preferences the fiscal approach to gender equality over one based on fairness. All proposed policy is assessed by the Department of Finance on economy viability and impact on GDP. This has meant successive governments have introduced policies that ensured the lifelong economic disadvantage for every single woman in Australia.

Denniss calls out the Australian government on using ‘victim blaming’ tactics to silence women. He uses the government’s decision to develop a $50 billion submarine industry in South Australia. Even if we did need twelve more submarines, which we don’t, it would cost $20 billion less if we just purchased them from overseas. At the same time, the government ignores the lowest paid workers in Australia and advises women to simply make better ‘choices’ with their money.

Women are not making bad ‘choices’ – our politicians are. Our workforce rewards long linear careers. Women over 55 years old are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia. As Deniss points out: ‘We invented superannuation. It’s the last vestiges of the male breadwinner harvester man model. It works well, for well-paid people like me who don’t take lots of time out of the workforce.’

Australia has some of the highest rates of part-time work in the OECD, the vast majority of it is performed by women. Yet we have equated the idea of flexible work situations being something that women should do. Research by the Diversity Council found that 79% of young fathers would prefer to work a compressed week but only 24% managed to do so. When asked if they would like the flexibility to be able to spend part of the week working from home, 56% wanted this and only 13% actually did it. Should we interpret this as men being ‘hopeless’ at negotiating? Or perhaps they don’t even bother asking for flexibility as they know that there are severe financial penalties for doing so.

There really is no room to negotiate. After all, men earn more than women, so many households will ‘choose’ to maintain the higher wage. Our current system has created a double bind – women are stuck at home and men stuck at work.

Annabel Crabb has dubbed this phenomena as ‘the wife drought’. ‘A wife, traditionally, is a person who pulls back on paid work in order to do more of the unpaid work that accumulates around the home (…) A “wife” can be male or female. Whether they’re men or women, though, the main thing wives are is a cracking professional asset.’

Our superannuation system is geared towards couples who own property. Good luck if you are a single parent, get sick or live in the second most expensive property market in the world. Until care work is seen as a valuable contribution to our economy, our government will continue to ignore the issue.

The influence government policy can have on societal behaviour cannot be underestimated. Within forty years since Australia repealed the law forcing married women to resign from public sector jobs we now expect all women to work. Employment rates leaped from 11% in the early 1960s to now hovering around 65.2%. In the same span of time Sweden has come closest to closing the gender gap. Forty years ago they became the first country to introduce a gender neutral paid paternal leave policy. In the first year only 0.5% of men took all of their entitlement. Instead of accepting stereotypes, the Swedish government have continually tweaked the policy. The policy was expanded in 2002 so that if the mother and father each took at least two months’ leave, the family would get two extra months. Now close to 90% of Swedish fathers take paternity leave. We do not have to wait 217 years to close the gap.

Our current and future economy is propped up by unpaid work. Until we recognise care work as a significant contributor to society, it will not be legitimized in the eyes of policymakers and any family-friendly policies will be deemed as fiscally futile.

Renowned economist Dr Marilyn Waring points out – ‘If you’re not visible as a worker, then you’re not visible in the distribution of benefits.’ Our elected representatives need to stop pretending that 51% of the population are invisible.

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash_


Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.

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