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The domestic battleground created by a pandemic

23 minutes


Lyn Craig

Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Melbourne

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Episode Notes

How is the domestic load shared in your household?

Would you say it’s more or less equal, or, as in so many Aussie households, is the division of domestic labour and childcare a battleground?

The pandemic created what experts describe as an unprecedented external shock, forcing homes to temporarily become our primary workplaces as well as the locations where all the care was happening.

So how did dual earning couples with kids share this load? What happened to men’s and women’s dissatisfaction levels?

On this episode of Seriously Social (the last for Season 1) journalist Ginger Gorman speaks with Melbourne University Sociology Professor Lyn Craig about her brand new research…do not miss this episode!

See you in a couple of weeks for Season 2.


Ginger Gorman:    Hello. Lovely to have you with us for Seriously Social. This is the podcast where we use the lens of the social sciences to help us consider how COVID‑19 is impacting Australian society, our relationships, human connections and societal structures. We get experts to help us discover new insights and think about things in new ways.

With me now is Lyn Craig. She’s a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Melbourne and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Lyn has expertise on the time impacts of children and the division of domestic labour, issues which are actually very close to my own heart. Lyn, thank you so much for joining me.

Professor Lyn Craig:             Thank you so much, Ginger. It’s great to be here.

Ginger:                  Let’s just rewind to before the pandemic for a moment. What did the domestic division of labour look like inside Australian homes?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Before the pandemic, women were doing more than men. They were much more likely to be working part time and men to be working fulltime. But even if they were working fulltime, they were still likely to be doing more of the housework, and the unpaid care of children and the elderly and sick as well. That division of labour was not very equal between men and women.

Ginger:                  When I was discussing this with you before we were recording, you described this as a pre‑existing friction. What did you mean by that?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      By that, I mean that we have arranged some policies in Australia that mean that men and women’s participation in the paid workforce, and in the work of raising children, and looking after others and keeping the household going is kind of structurally organised so that women do more of that than men. That’s partly because of longstanding gender norms, but it’s also to do with the way we arrange our childcare system in Australia.

It’s very expensive. For many women, it’s uneconomic to put their children in childcare for more than two or three days a week. And if they do that, they’re working for no extra take‑home pay, which means that not very many of them can afford to take that option. Compared with other countries, our arrangement of paid work participation between men and women is more unequal.

Ginger:                  So, essentially, you’ve got these exhausted, harassed women in partnerships often with men. What were the satisfaction levels like of men and women before the pandemic?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Well, it depends a little on what topic of satisfaction you’re looking at. But in terms of satisfaction with their own balance of paid and unpaid work, many more women were unsatisfied than men. Many more women than men thought they did more than their fair share of unpaid work in domestic labour. And many more women were dissatisfied with their partner’s share of unpaid work in domestic labour. The levels were quite high. About half of women were dissatisfied on those things.

Ginger:                  Do we have any insight on what was happening before the pandemic in terms of same‑sex couples?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      I think that that was more equal, but we haven’t really delved into that side of things yet. We got a lot of data out of the survey and it goes across a whole lot of different types of family and we really are hoping to be able to tease that out a bit carefully as we go on.

So, the analyses that we’ve done so far, it’s been on the overall sample and then a particular part of it on dual‑earner parents. And that’s important because those people are the most time-pressed demographic group we have. That’s when the crunch really hits and the gender division of labour is most pressing and urgent, and upsetting, I think, for many women.

Ginger:                  Yes. Well, seeing you brought it up, let’s have a chat about this research that you’ve been doing right now. This is research into how the pandemic has impacted the division of labour inside Australian homes. What can you tell me about your preliminary findings?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      We can see that it had quite a big effect on the way people arranged their time. Obviously, many more people were working at home. Most of the dual-earner partnerships that we were looking at, both partners were working at home. We’re looking at them because they’ve got children. So, this is households in which both partners have got work responsibilities and now growing care and housework responsibilities because the need is getting bigger. Paid work went down a little for both men and women, but unpaid work went up a lot for both men and women.

So, what’s interesting though is that men’s time went up from a much lower base than women’s and therefore, their increase took them to narrow the gap between women somewhat. But women, before the pandemic, they were doing much more. The time also went up much more for women in absolute terms. And so, they had a higher workload overall than fathers, but there was a bit of a closing of the gap in relative terms.

Ginger:                  There was a really interesting sentence in your draft paper that I’m going to read back to you because I want you to unpick it for me. You said, “These time changes were most for mothers, but gender gaps narrowed because the relative increase in the childcare was higher for fathers.”

So, can you just pull those strands apart for me?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Well, that means that before the pandemic, men were averaging about two hours and 10 minutes of childcare a day. Women were averaging about three and three‑quarter hours. And post the pandemic, afterwards, men’s had risen to three and a half hours and women’s had risen to over five hours.

So, although the differences between those two sets of numbers was narrower afterwards, the amounts were higher for both and they were particularly high for women.

Ginger:                  Isn’t that interesting, Lyn. You’re talking about heterosexual couples, presumably both doing paid work, or a lot of them, inside the home and both having the same opportunity to do the domestic care. And okay, dads are doing a little bit better, but not that much better.

Professor Lyn Craig:                      No. Yeah, they’re pitching in and, of course, they’re there, so it’s more difficult not to do it, but really, it still remained disproportionately a thing for mothers. But to their credit, where they’re in the house, so they were doing more than they had been before.

Ginger:                  Lyn, one of the most compelling findings in your preliminary research is that both men and women were more dissatisfied than they were before, but especially men. Why do you think that was?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Well, I think that the whole situation was pretty trying for everybody and I think that they were doing more, it’s under more difficult circumstances. And so, their satisfaction levels with the gender division of labour and how they were spending their own time in paid and unpaid work. Yeah, they went up.

I have to say, they went up not quite as high as women’s had been originally, although they were much closer than they had been. And I think that the women have long been in this situation of finding this very burdensome situation of juggling work and care and now, more men were alongside them under similar constraints. And it’s actually very stressful and they were feeling it, as women had been for so long before.

Ginger:                  Is this perhaps a good thing then that women’s invisible labour has suddenly become visible to this whole cohort of the population that has never seen it before?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Yes. I think it is a good thing. I think it doesn’t necessarily make it any better for women, but I think the recognition would be valuable that this particular juggle of raising families particularly and trying to stay in the workforce. And we’ve got very highly‑educated young women in this country as we do highly‑educated young men and to reach the opportunities that they are obviously trained for is very difficult if you’re also trying to do care at the same time.

They’re actually incompatible without very good support systems. And other countries manage this by having accessible, affordable childcare, to which every child has a guaranteed place and this does make it much more doable, and feasible and less stressful for parents.

Ginger:                  There are so many things in what you’ve just said that I want to pick apart. First of all, there’s the childcare issue, which the Government temporarily made free, which seemed to be a recognition of how impossible it was, partly, to work while having your kids at home. But now, obviously, parents are going back to paying for it very shortly and the Government has also got rid of the JobKeeper for childcare workers. So, what’s your response to all of that?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Well, I was extremely hopeful when it first happened that they made it free to parents because it seemed to be a recognition that if they wanted women in the workforce, and at that stage, the focus was really on essential workers, they needed to have their children looked after. And this is the situation, of course, women have known about forever that childcare is a necessity if you need to be able to leave your kids safely with someone.

And so, that it was the first thing that has been wound back was actually very disappointing because it seemed like it was an opportunity for people who hadn’t thought about it much before, which sadly, seems to include the Government that joining the dots between what women are capable of doing and what they’re able to do are very different.

And a lot of women are making choices or presumed to be free choices that are not. And so, one of the ways that choice is constrained is by making it very difficult for them to replace their own labour without paying so much for it that it’s actually pretty much of a line-ball decision for many women.

A lot of women think it’s worth it to keep the job. If they’re high earning, then it can be, obviously, but it’s also important for some women not to lose their connection to the workforce and the experience. And they do it even without the financial gain for a few years. But it should be shared more socially I think because children are actually a public good. Raising the next generation is an important activity for families, obviously, but also for the country.

Ginger:                  Lyn, I read some statistics from the Grattan Institute a few years ago talking about the worth of women’s unpaid labour and it was billions of dollars. I was quite surprised by the figure, actually.

The question I have is, is it better for the community to kind freeload almost on women’s unpaid labour, because it does have a huge economic gain, or conversely, are we actually losing the skills and the opportunities that women and the education even that women could bring and losing more because they’re so constrained in this particular situation? What’s your view?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      My view is that it’s a very difficult balance. It’s absolutely true that the value of unpaid labour in any country, including Australia, if you add it up, the time inputs and the worth of what’s produced, then it would amount to 50% of GDP. And there are some countries that publish these figures as satellite accounts to the GDP. And there’s quite a push, in the United Nations particularly, to value unpaid care work and make sure that the economic contribution it makes is recognized.

But there’s also the issue of the fact that it’s in and of itself a good thing to do. And if you move all the women into the paid workforce fulltime, then you in some ways, are moving productive labour out of the unpaid economy. So, the care economy persists if it’s unpaid in the home and the value of that work is something that governments rely on.

They rely on families to raise children and reproduce the workforce, and to perform aged care, and look after the sick, and elderly at home and those with a disability. And the less families are able to do that in a sustainable way, the more services the Government would need to provide, or the more human misery there would be. So, it actually is something that needs to be done.

Women need the opportunity to reach their own potential and not be relegated to the private sphere providing this unpaid work. It’s a waste for the women themselves if they can’t reach their full potential and it’s a waste nationally. It makes it a bad investment for the Government. They’re not getting the benefit from it.

Ginger:                  It’s quite complex though, isn’t it, Lyn, because young men, for example, who may want to go part-time and look after their children are often dissuaded by workplaces because they’re then not seen as the model-1950s employee. So, it’s not actually always that men aren’t doing their fair share. Sometimes, they’re almost not allowed to take up these opportunities and share the caring with women.

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Yeah. The expectation with workplaces seems to be that the women will do it. And so, we’ve got this system where women going part time or taking casual jobs and giving up security in order to have flexibility so they can fit their employment around their care, that seems to be regarded as kind of to be expected. And it’s less so for men and it’s true that it can be difficult for them in workplaces to put their hand up for parental leave or go part time.

They can be judged for not being committed to the workplace, so the policing of it on an individual level against men is a disincentive for them to do it, especially as the norms kind of follow that as well. So, the feeling that you need to be the breadwinner, a major breadwinner is stronger. That can affect men’s career progression, but of course, for women, most women’s career progression is affected by it because the assumption is that it’s normal for women to do it. So as a class, we are all put in that situation whereas individual men, who would like to, also find it difficult.

Ginger:                  It seems to me as well that women are punished in a multitude of ways for this. You get taxed more highly if you are part time. It’s very difficult for women to accrue super when they’re in and out of certain jobs. And so, the short‑term effects are drastic in terms of not being able to use your educational opportunities and those frustrations and perhaps not even being able to spend the time that you want with your children either and then you’re overworked with the domestic load and it’s crushing. And then, long term, you kind of pay for it again because you haven’t accrued super.

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Yes. It’s very difficult because the whole superannuation system was based on the assumption that people would be in the paid workforce working fulltime over their adult lifetime. And the fact is, for the reasons we’ve said before, that’s not true of very many women at all.

Most Australian women work part time or take periods out of the workforce for family care reasons and they can’t accrue. The gender pay gap is relevant too because they earn less. So, they don’t accrue enough to retire on and yet, we have had that system in place since 1992 and it’s clear women are retiring with insufficient savings to cover their retirement. They’re now the fastest growing group of homeless in the country. It’s accumulated poverty over their working lifetime, which again was quite foreseeable.

Making policies like that and then acting as if that’s what women chose, they would rather be caring or they’d prefer to work part time, it’s a structural issue that is ignored and that’s the invisibility again. It’s like it can’t be seen for what it is because care is not seen for what it is. It’s not seen as a time‑consuming, laborious worthwhile job that women and families need to do and the Government needs them to do because the costs fall privately. If you choose to take that on, then not only do you get paid less in the short term, but you can be in poverty in your old age.

Ginger:                  And the costs of childcare, as you said earlier, are just crippling. Lyn, I wonder if we just go back to your research for a second, the very latest research you’ve been doing in relation to the pandemic, in that draft paper you sent me, you called this a huge external shock. And as you know, these are issues very close to my heart and I kind of had this glimmer of hope and thought maybe this is the moment where these issues have been magnified to the extent where we will pay attention to it as a community. This is the spotlight kind of watershed moment. What do you think? Is this going to create long-term structural change for us?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      I think ‘long term’ is probably the operative word there. I do think it showed it up. And I think the broad recognition that women have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, that’s clearly come. We know that women’s jobs were affected most and it’s connected to what goes on in the house because part of the reason was the sectors therein, but it was also partly because so many are in jobs that are short-term casual part time and they didn’t qualify for JobKeeper in the same way.

But the reasons that they’re in those jobs is largely, as I said before, to be able to manage their work and care. So, they take the risk of the lack of security to be able to manage the pressures on them in the moment than to be able to balance all the things they have to balance.

Now, that’s a risk and that’s not a risk that is very well shared socially at the moment and that risk didn’t pay off in this particular instance. So, they were more likely to suffer from losing their jobs and they were also more likely to be going back and doing more of the care in the house, although as I say, joined by men.

Ginger:                  I know that about 10% of the people you surveyed were in same-sex couples. So, I just wonder if there’s anything that we can learn from those couples in terms of the way that they share their care.

Professor Lyn Craig:                      I can’t be confident about exactly what’s happened there, but I think one of the things that heterosexual couples have to deal with is the normative expectations of each person’s role. And so, to some extent, if you take that away and the big power differential in the workforce, and in the pay gaps and those sort of things, then you’ve levelled some aspects of the playing field quite a lot.

Although there’s been a lot of assumptions over the years that men earn more, so that’s why they are the ones that keep going to work while women go back to the home when the kids are little, that’s compounding as well. Obviously, if women withdraw from the workforce more than men, then their earnings are going to fall behind.

So, in same-sex couples, you wouldn’t necessarily have that and choices could be made on more individual grounds than stereotypical gender grounds that seem to affect us all as groups of people.

Ginger:                  Lyn, I’m so grateful to you and your team for doing this work because, as you know, it’s an issue that I’ve struggled with quite a bit in my own life. Is there anything else that you want to say before I let you go?

Professor Lyn Craig:                      I’d just like to say that I think the experience of the pandemic is a very unusual one in which work and care had to happen in the same place at the same time with more than one person being present. And probably the patterns that we see are just particular to that unusual circumstance.

Things will unwind, like the childcare being free to parents did, but I think that there’s more evidence to point to about how arbitrary the situation we’re in is. The way that women have been managing these things for years is obviously not working for them. If you look at the data, it’s been evident for a while, but it’s coming out and it’s more recent with research as well. It’s too hard. It’s too much.

It’s overwhelming. Following your employment goals and raising your families are both extremely important. It’s stressing a lot of women out and it’s not manageable. And to have that evident to a few more people, including the women’s partners how hard it is can only be a good thing. And even if we go back more quickly than we’d like to the previous situation, you can’t unsee it.

More of us can say, “Look, it wasn’t working before. It didn’t work during the pandemic. Men were doing more, but women were doing even more. We need to arrange our society so that we can work and care and let our women participate in both on equal terms.”

Ginger:                  Thank you so much for your time.

Professor Lyn Craig:                      Thank you very much.

Ginger:                  Thank you again for listening to Seriously Social. If you like what you are hearing, don’t forget to share our podcast with your friends and on your social channels. Subscribe and rate us wherever you get your podcast from.

Seriously Social will be taking a short break and we’ll be back in a couple of weeks with Season 2. See you then.

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