Women’s Unpaid Care Work in Australia

Women continue to bear the work load of unpaid care in Australia. On average women spend 64% of their ‘working hours’ with no remuneration in comparison to men (36%). [1] Why does this difference matter? How did we get here? And what can be done to improve the well being and financial stability of women in unpaid care work in the future?


What is unpaid care and is it worth much?

Care work involves simply caring for others. While some professions in care work get paid e.g. childcare workers, health professions and teachers, other individuals do not get remuneration for their care work.  This includes; people doing domestic activities e.g. cleaning, gardening, general house maintenance and cooking as well as looking after children, the elderly and people with health issues or a disability. [2]Trying to measure and value women’s unpaid care has its difficulties.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has estimated that the monetary value of unpaid care work is approximately $650.1 billion which equals to a massive 50.6% of GDP. [3]

Although unpaid care work is not included in the overall GDP of Australia this work still contributes greatly to the overall economy of Australia.

Who are the unpaid care workers in Australia?

According to The Australian Bureau of Statistics, women make up 70% of primary unpaid care workers for children while 56.1% of unpaid care workers who look after the elderly and or people with health issues and disabilities are women. [4]

I am one of these women.

For the last year and a half, I have dedicated my life to raising my son full time. A few months ago, I started thinking about returning to the workforce and found an amazing part-time job that I was excited to apply for which involved policy and women’s rights, two areas that I am passionate about. This could be my chance to gain invaluable work experience in this area!

However, these thoughts soon turned more realistic. Who will look after my son? Family? Day care? How much is day care? I became really frustrated and upset as I soon realised that both options require sacrifices; sacrifice from raising my son myself and sacrificing my career and climbing the ladder.

Women in unpaid care are putting in a substantial amount of time and effort to support individuals, their families and society. Their work however is often invisible which can be reflected in society’s biased views that women should assume care roles while men should support their families financially. Moreover, unpaid care work is often left out of Australia’s policy agendas, highlighting that gender inequality in unpaid care work is not seen as a pressing issue.

If the burden of unpaid care continues to fall on women, their economic empowerment will be hindered which can consequently affect their livelihood and rights.

Why is unpaid care work a problem for women?

Many women who become mothers are often the ones who shoulder the brunt of domestic activities and child rearing. This in turn affects women’s workforce participation, their income, work opportunities and their superannuation.

Motherhood is a full-time job and it is the best and most challenging journey I’ve ever been on. On the downside, becoming a mum has meant having less superannuation and putting a career on hold. Yet many women and men accept this is the norm and challenging this could come off as ‘wanting it all’, being impatient or complaining that motherhood isn’t enough.

Shockingly one in three women will have no money in their superannuation[5], which leaves many older women in poverty. Single mothers also face added challenges such as pressure to return back to work, accruing payments for childcare and being on welfare such as the highly scrutinised ‘ParentsNext’ program from Centrelink.


I love being a mum, but I’m not afraid to say that the system isn’t doing enough for mothers and carers. Society’s expectations of women in unpaid care roles have not progressed enough for women to feel financially secure, empowered and appreciated for the never-ending work that supports individuals and society.

Women make up 69.1% of part time employees in Australia[6] and are often in areas of employment that are not well remunerated or are vulnerable such as casual and contract work. Women in unpaid care work also sacrifice leisure activities and put their employment on hold to perform domestic duties. This can lead to poorer health outcomes including mental health issues such as depression.

Balancing unpaid care work with paid work also poses a challenge as many workplaces won’t negotiate on flexible work arrangements. On top of this, studies have shown that women are less inclined than men to negotiate with employers. [7]

Lastly, carers who come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may face additional unique challenges including a limited knowledge of the health system, language barriers, culturally inappropriate service provision and isolation from friends and family. 

Recommendations

Improving the lives and well being of women working in unpaid care as well as those that they care for requires national attention and should be prioritised in Australia’s public policy agendas. A holistic response is also essential to tackle this multifaceted problem. Opinions from women from all different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds in unpaid care work must be a part of the solution(s). Engagement with key stakeholders such as the health department, and the education and community development sectors are essential.

There is no one answer to this complex issue. Increasing women in the workforce isn’t the sole answer. We need more flexibility in the workforce for part-time workers, a transformation of views regarding gender roles and social norms so that men don’t feel emasculated as carers and women don’t feel apologetic for reaching their career goals.

Without challenging gender stereotypes, gender equality will not be achieved in the paid workforce.

While I have a partner who appreciates the work I do with my son and at home (he helps a lot too!) and is open to switching roles, it is unlikely I would be able to find a job with the same income, stability and benefits. I believe that we can do a lot more for women in unpaid care.

Improving access to public services, child care and services for the elderly will help facilitate the workload of women as well as having the potential to provide improved care for those being cared for. Moreover, women will be able to have more time for themselves which could help alleviate stress and improve their overall well being.

Expanding pre-school hours to regular school hours and having consistent days each week could help mothers who are working part-time. Moreover, respite services for the elderly could be extended as the hours in respite are often variable, short and are unlikely to line up with part-time working hours.

Flexible work arrangements in the Australian workforce could also improve the quality of employment for women carers – for example the hours worked, location, telecommuting and job distribution could be influenced for the better. Potentially this could assist in getting more men involved with child rearing and domestic activities and in turn this would contribute to paving the way for gender equality in the paid workforce for women.

My story is but one of many and it is important to recognise that every women’s experience in unpaid care is different due to a variety of factors e.g. socio-economic status, sexual identity, race, religion, disability, health and support. The answers to this issue should encompass all of these intersecting factors from a variety of stakeholders over an ongoing period. It’s time that we make women in unpaid care work a priority as all women deserve to have it all.


This article was written by Emiko, a member of the YWCA Young Women’s Council. Emiko is a linguist – she has a knack for learning foreign languages. Her own proudest girl-power moment was giving birth to her son, and she names bell hooks as her favourite feminist.


[1] Workplace Gender Equality Agency. (2016). Unpaid care work and the labour market. Retrieved from https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/australian-unpaid-care-work-and-the-labour-market.pdf

[2] Same reference as above.

[3] Same reference as above.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012). Carers Australia: Summary of findings. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Lookup/D9BD84DBA2528FC9CA257C21000E4FC5?

[5] Commonwealth of Australia. (2016). ‘A husband is not a retirement plan’ Achieving economic security for women in Australia’. Retrieved from https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Economics/Economic_security_for_women_in_retirement/Report

[6] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Labour Force, Australia. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/6202.0

[7] Carol Sankar. (2017). Why don’t more women negotiate? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/07/13/why-dont-more-women-negotiate/#4d316f67e769

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