Written by Satara Uthayakumaran
Age 18: I stand in the energised crowd, part of an incredible wave of March 4 Justice protests which wake a sleeping nation.
Age 13: I hear about the ‘axe the tampon tax’ campaign on the radio, still grappling with what menstruation even means for my body.
Age 12: I watch Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, an onlooker with the rest of the country as our female Prime Minister destroys a man who had tried to destroy us.
Age 6: I excitedly tiptoe into a hospital ward, watching my five-hour-old sister lie sleeping in a glass box.
I want to tell you a story about something forgotten.
The first time I met my sister was when I was six, as she lay in an incubator. My dad then explained to me that she was in this foreign glass box because she was a bit different. My sister was born with a double disability; Down syndrome and a severe hearing impairment.
And if there is a strong woman I am in awe of, it is my mother.
My mother is my sister’s primary carer. She cooks for her. Cleans after her. Makes sure she gets to school. She takes care of her in a way that’s very different to how she took care of me and continues to take care of me. She both works and looks after my sister as a parent and a carer. Yet I see when this goes unacknowledged. I see when people find it hard to grapple with the fact that sometimes not doing a full-time job can be just as stressful and tiring in a different way.
Most people do not associate housework with skills, challenge, or difficulty. We see it as something easily done, as a sort of extension of oneself. These women do not tell us that they wake up extra early to make breakfast in the morning, drop their children off at day care or school, only to come home to drive back out again to do the groceries. Then come back home, to vacuum the carpet and make sure that the house is clean. Then pick up the children from school, come home, make dinner, wash up, give the children a bath and only then be able to rest. And all this time, this work is not being done mechanically like a robot, women are constantly thinking about the next task. It requires skills, and is equally draining as all other forms of work.
And it is because of this stereotyping that women in domestic positions are not compensated for the same amount of work done by those in a workplace. Their unpaid labour, when looking after children and the elderly or sick or disabled is excluded in mainstream economics and the GDP, despite a 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics study revealing that unpaid work was equivalent to $434 billion – 43.5% of the GDP. The mental strain and effort put into educating a young child, or supporting a parent or grandparent with both physical and economic needs, is just as great as the work done by workers at a company that produces consumer goods.
Even through the protests, campaigns and speeches, women clearly are still not counted with the same economic importance as men. At the end of the day, domestic work forms the backbone of families and communities, but in the eyes of mainstream economics, this seems to not be the case.
This is a complex issue which cannot be solved overnight. This is not a problem which we consciously made, but this does not mean that we cannot consciously fix it.
Firstly, recognise the unpaid labour of the women in your lives. Do not expect to be asked to help, take the initiative to do it yourself. Make clear you respect that, if a woman does not drive to an office every day, it does not mean that they are not taking on the burden of managing your wellbeing or the wellbeing of your family. Ask if they are ok. Take on work without being requested.
But even more importantly, if you are a woman in this position, recognise the unpaid labour that you do. Do not allow society to decide whether you work hard or not. Do not demean your character based on their inability to understand how crucial stay-at-home work is.
Celebrate your own work knowing that it makes up the roots which hold up society. And with the progress that we are making, I am sure that society will, one day, celebrate you as well.
Satara Uthayakumaran studies Arts/Law at the Australian National University. She has previously written for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Sydney Morning Herald. Satara has also appeared on national television, most notably for her conversation with previous Prime Minister Julia Gillard, on women of colour in leadership.