Making women’s unpaid work count: Feminist economics pioneer Marilyn Waring on care and the unfinished feminist re volution

Every International Women’s Day, or when Australia Day honours are handed out, we ruefully observe that, despite decades of feminism, equal opportunity laws and a higher percentage of female tertiary graduates than male ones, we still have a gender pay gap and far fewer women in positions of power. We consider overt and covert discrimination, sexual harassment and other barriers to women’s advancement. Yet the central reason that the revolution is unfinished is right there under our noses in everyday life: women’s unpaid work.
Waring wrote Counting for Nothing. Gross domestic product, in excluding the unpaid labour of one gender, Waring tells me, is based upon “an ideology of applied patriarchy”. Because GDP only looks at activities in the marketplace it counts the work of drug dealers but not of hospice volunteers, the production of nuclear weapons but not women’s unpaid work. Human activities of great value are made invisible, treated as valueless. One of Waring’s famous examples is breastfeeding. Despite all we know about the benefits of breast milk, Waring pointed out that the more manufactured formula milk replaces breastfeeding, the more it adds to GDP. Since GDP is equated with progress, a loss is defined as a gain.
Long before our societies began to come to terms with climate change, Waring had already pointed out the terrible consequences of not valuing our environment. Economics did not count the preservation for future generations of our irreplaceable natural environment: air that is safe to breathe, clean and plentiful water, and pristine, undamaged ecosystems. Instead it counted and valued all those activities – the work of polluting industries and coalmines, even the clean-up of oil spills – that placed it in peril.
Waring’s influence was, and is still, significant. She has advised governments around the world and inspired human rights organisations. The System of National Accounts was revised in 1993 to include more aspects of subsistence farming, partly in response to Waring’s critique, and revised again in 2008, but “what remained utterly consistent was what was not counted”: unpaid work. The System of National Accounts made provision for separate but consistent satellite accounts that give an imputed value to this unpaid women’s work so it can be measured alongside GDP. An Australian Bureau of Statistics study in 2014 revealed that unpaid work in Australia was worth $434 billion, equivalent to 43.5 per cent of GDP.
In March this year, Tanya Plibersek announced the Australian Labor Party’s commitment, if elected, to giving the ABS the $15.2 million it would need for time use surveys in 2020 and 2027. Citing the 2016 census figures, Plibersek said the average woman did 14 hours of housework and family organisation per week and the average man fewer than five, while women did three quarters of the child care, and 70 per cent of caring for elderly or disabled family members or friends. “The Australian economy, Australian society, rests upon women’s unpaid work,” said Plibersek. “As Marilyn Waring – the founder of feminist economics – once said, ‘What we don’t count, counts for nothing.’”

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