Gender equality begins at home: empty the dishwasher, guys
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Gender equality begins at home: empty the dishwasher, guys

The amount of unpaid work women do has a direct impact on their economic security and if gender equality is to be achieved then it has to start at home.

I always thought I was lazy for doing the barest of bare minimums when it comes to household chores.

I thought I was a slob for leaving the washing up for days, never making stock from scratch or cleaning the oven. And only vacuuming when someone comes to stay (which works out to be every few months).

<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

But thumping endorsement came this week.

According to the United Nations, I am a card-carrying, all-dancing example of gender empowerment.

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On Monday, UN Women released a flagship report on the progress of the world's women, which contained the revelation that women around the globe do almost 2.5 times more unpaid work than men. Things in Pakistan are particularly dire, where women do 10 times what men do. In Guatemala it is five times more.

All of this makes the Australian situation look relatively rosy. Here, women do 311 minutes of unpaid care and domestic work a day, compared to 172 minutes for men. But this still sees ladies 1.8 times ahead of gentleman in their housework output.

This is not a problem just because doing the dishes is gross and folding the washing is never-endingly tedious. Or because, no matter their cuteness, looking after the kids can be extremely exhausting and frustrating.

The amount of unpaid work they do has a direct impact on women's economic security.

As UN Women point out, more time spent at home means less time to develop skills and experience that will land women a decent, steady job in the paid workforce. In the short-term, this means less income and less financial independence. Over the long-term, it means less superannuation and savings in later life.

In Australia, the workforce participation gap between men and women is 12.4 per cent, the pay gap is 18.8 per cent and the super gap is about 47 per cent.

This is not to argue that unpaid work, whether it be collecting water in Ethiopia or the kids from school in England, isn't important. Not only does the work at home support those in the paid workforce, it also provides actual public services like caring for children, the elderly and disabled. As of 2010, the unpaid care sector in Australia was worth an estimated $650 billion a year.

So it's work that needs to be done. It's just a question of how and who.

"Couples who share chores equally have more sex … choreplay is real".

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg recently argued that men should do more housework because, "couples who share chores equally have more sex … choreplay is real". In an article in The New York Times, she also cited studies that said men who care for their children are more flexible, patient and happy with their jobs.

But the focus cannot be on whether men are getting sweet loving at home and satisfaction in the office.

At a (headbangingly​) basic level, the lack of balance in unpaid work continues to reinforce stereotypes about what is women's work and what is men's. And who has more power and importance.

As a 2012 International Labour Organisation report explains, the male-breadwinner/female-caregiver idea "distorts and limits human potential".

"If we are to make further progress towards gender equality, we have to address the fact that it is neither 'normal' nor 'natural' for women to be performing most of the unpaid labour."

And before you ask, no – the phenomenon of women doing more work cannot just be explained through a shrug of the shoulders that, "well, if a husband is out earning all the bacon, isn't it fair the wife makes the carbonara?"

Data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey last year shows that women do more hours of paid employment, housework and childcare combined than men each week, regardless of whether the man is the main earner, the men and women earn equal amounts or the woman is the breadwinner.

Huh?

The Abbott government is desperate to get more women into work. This – rather than say, the development of little kids – is one of the driving reasons behind its new childcare package.

Boosting female employment was also singled out in the intergenerational report. And it was a headline 2014 G20 commitment to reduce the gap in workforce participation by 25 per cent by 2025. To do this, Australia will need to encourage an extra 200,000 women to work.

So far, along with nannies, the Coalition has talked about a jobs and small business strategy and tax reform to reach the magic number. Surely a much simpler, lower cost option would be to advise blokes to empty the dishwasher a bit more.

Perhaps the plethora of men out there who are advocates for women could be mobilised to the cause.

The UN Women's HeforShe campaign has seen almost 300,000 men, including Barack Obama, Tony Abbott and Matt Damon, come out to "stand up" to the discrimination faced by women and girls. To this we add the Human Rights Commission's "male champions of change", where leaders across business, the military and government, "champion" women's advancement in the workplace.

How powerful would it be if they all pledged to do half the work at home, if they are not already doing so?

And if every other Australian man did the same?

So often with social problems we look to the government to step in and provide funds, help and infrastructure. But housework and caring is one that requires no such assistance.

They say charity begins at home. It is not the only thing.

Judith Ireland is a special writer, weekends, for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House

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