A dual-earner household, but with a twist

by 02 Sep 2008

Let’s take an example of a couple. Catherine, 25, has recently completed a double degree in law and psychology and is working in a rehabilitation practice, a job she loves. Her boyfriend, Tom, works in an investment bank regularly working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, a job he loves.

Catherine and Tom are lucky – like us all – to be living in a country that is relatively rich, healthy and happy. We have a $22 billion-dollar public fiscal surplus. Australia ranks third on the Human Development Index – which measures life expectancy at birth, participation in education and our standard of living.

But not all is as good as it might be in such a happy land. We do not do so well on inequality. Catherine exemplifies Australian women’s turn to education, and to a late start for children. She is also likely to exemplify an Australian woman’s propensity to work around their children, through part-time work.

Tom is likely to continue to work full-time through his family formation and parenting years. He will live in what has now become the typical dual-earner household, which has replaced the “male-breadwinner/female-carer” family type of his parents and grandparents. For many years, their household is likely to be a one and a half breadwinner household – but with a twist.

One of the breadwinners is working much more than full-time. Catherine will probably juggle a full-time job around household maintenance and care. In 2006, Australian women on average did nearly 27 hours of domestic work and care a week, while men did just under 14.

At present, Catherine has a one in three chance of taking any paid maternity leave when her babies arrive. Tom has even less chance of paid paternity leave unless he has climbed to partner in his investment company when he can probably decide for himself.

When Catherine returns to paid work after having her children she will start to fall behind in earnings relative to the men she works alongside. This falling behind casts a long shadow into old age, in an occupationally-based superannuation system, where women work on average around half as many effective years as men (20 to 38). Recent studies suggest that only a small minority of Australian women can “confidently look forward to a comfortable financially independent retirement”.

The key question for Australians is not whether to have or use childcare –because most children experience it already – but how can it be done with the best outcomes for children? Moralising against non-maternal care just loads mothers up with guilt – rather hypocritical in a system which increasingly relies on women’s contribution in paid work both at the household and economy-wide level, while providing meagre support for maternal leave from paid work.

Australian women might now make up nearly half of all paid jobs in Australia but they have not given up their primary responsibility for housework and care for children at home.

The Six Pillars for good outcomes for women who work

Societies that are increasingly reliant on women’s labour and want to enjoy high levels of household wellbeing, without wide socio-economic and gender gaps, have to provide five practical policy pillars. They are:

1. Long paid parental leaves

2. Quality, affordable, accessible early childhood education and care

3. Quality part-time jobs and flexibility at work

4. Good management – of systems and workplaces

5. Prevention and remediation of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment and undervaluation of women’s work

6. Sharing domestic work and care.

If Australia is to reap the fruit of women workers’contribution at work without compromising the health and wellbeing of our population, we have to construct these pillars promptly so that they are – as much as we can ensure – universally available and in good functional shape.

By Barbara Pollack, director, Centre for Work & Life, University of South Australia (summary of speech made my Barbara)