According to the Meadow Lea margarine ad, married women with children who do all of the housework, cooking and child caring "ought to be congratulated". The Dove soap ad says mothers are unsung heroes.
Now there is a suggestion that women's unpaid work be financially recognised. The proposal, from a parliamentary inquiry into equal opportunity and the status of Australian women, suggests that the dependent spouse rebate, funded by tax revenue, be redirected to women who work in the home in the form of superannuation.
The inquiry also says that men need to do much more in terms of household chores and child-rearing. While this is to be welcomed, it is couched in terms of "helping", which implies that the main responsibility lies with women. And it was not, unfortunately, the main aspect of the inquiry which was picked up by the mainstream press.
"PAY MUMS FOR HOUSE WORK" screeched the Sydney Sunday Telegraph. The opening paragraph indignantly exclaimed that "women would effectively be paid for housework and mothering through the tax system ..." This can hardly be what the Meadow Lea ad meant! But then again, maybe the manufacturers of Meadow Lea wouldn't think it was such bad idea.
The inquiry draws on a study commissioned by the Office of the Status of Women. That study is based on the 1987 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey into how much time women and men spend doing housework and child-minding.
The study showed that a married woman who began a full-time job could expect her husband to increase his contribution to the housework and child-care by less than one hour a week. Men did about the same small amount of housework throughout their adult lives, regardless of circumstances. It made little difference whether they were married, had children, or whether their wives worked full time, part time or not at all.
Interestingly, the survey also collected information on non-family communal households. Even in these, it found, the women did more housework than their male housemates.
Study after study confirms that women continue to do most of the cooking, cleaning, washing and child-care. So what are the conclusions and recommendations? Not measures which will make these tasks normal activities which everybody does, or recommendations for greater child-care accessibility, which would contribute to child-care becoming a social responsibility. Instead, we get schemes which would even more firmly establish these tasks as belonging to women.
Taken to its logical extension, the idea of paying women for housework and child-care means paying women to stay in the home. It would deny many women economic independence outside the framework of the family. Even within the family, independence would be doubtful, considering the scheme would mean some small amount of financial recognition rather than a weekly pay packet. Government and off the hook in terms of providing child-care places and creches in the workplace. And it would be yet another disincentive for women to become and remain part of the workforce.
The solution isn't to make the unpaid work done mainly by women paid work done solely by women. The solution isn't to "congratulate" women along the lines of the television commercials. Women can be relieved of the main responsibility for household chores and child-care only when everybody is educated to carry out these tasks.
By Debra Wirth