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Treat Her Right: Why it’s time for us to start caring about care work

With the equal pay conversation in full swing, Dr Catherine Trundle examines the undervaluing women’s care work in society, and the steps we need to take to demand change.

Displays of overt sexism have a way of making many of us feel smugly superior. Anyone who publically utters opinions egregiously out of step with today’s gender norms can expect to hear a collective and outraged inhalation of breath across the nation.

So it was recently when Massey university chancellor Chris Kelly casually and erroneously lamented the high number of women vet school graduates, who are “equivalent to two-fifths of a fulltime equivalent vet throughout her life because she gets married and has a family, which is normal”. Chris Kelly was not the first to tread unawares into a hornet’s nest of sexism.

In 2011, The Employers and Manufacturers Association chief Alasdair Thompson explained the gender pay gap to Newstalk ZB radio with unapologetic frankness. “Let me get down to tin tacks. The fact is women have babies. They take time out of their careers … Look at who takes the most sick leave. Women do, in general, why? Because once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do they have children they have to take time off to go home and take leave”.

In both cases public disapproval was swift. Under pressure, both men stepped down or were sacked from their positions. Spokespeople for these organisations were unequivocal in their condemnation: there is no place for neo-Victorian views that tie women to the kitchen sink and define them primarily by their reproductive capabilities.

Such incidences play out as public morality dramas, helping us to collectively affirm what we stand for by distancing us from what we don’t. It is part of our progressive national mythology. After all, we are the country that first gave women the vote. Calling out overt sexism is an easy way to feel like a modern feminist. And it’s an easy way to feel part of a very necessary fight against an obvious modern injustice: the gender pay gap.

When men make public statements that say, in no uncertain terms, that women are inferior employees because of their biology, I too am outraged and quick to join the chorus of disapproval. But there is always something about such public outcries, which tend to fall into silence as quickly as they erupt, that make me pause. I’m reminded of the crucial fact that this is not the main problem we face. The greater issue is one that underpins the workings of our whole society and in which, willingly or unwillingly, aware or unaware, we are all complicit. This is the question of how we value, reward and notice the work that women do.

How we classify and value “women’s work” comes down to a deep-seated social division we just haven’t been able to shake, even in contemporary times. This is the sharp line we draw between the public and private spheres. We still live in a society split between Adam Smith’s world of work, enterprise, competition and self-interest, and the private domain of care, love, selflessness, and family. The former is still a man’s world, and the latter is still without doubt a feminine sphere.

For women, the move out of the home has been gradual but steady. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how far we have come. For the first half of the twentieth century most women, if they worked at all, only found jobs in limited, low paid areas of the economy, and only until they married. A woman who didn’t then put family first was deemed a suspect, selfish character, and many husbands simply didn’t allow their wives to seek employment. While many women gave up work willingly to fulfil their ‘real purpose’, in many countries in the 1930s and 40s women were legally prohibited from being employed once married. In the UK, for example, a ‘marriage bar’ forced married women to quit banking jobs till the 1950s. Meanwhile, in 1940s New Zealand legislation set the minimum wage for women at 70% of the male minimum wage, a law not seriously challenged until the Equal Pay act of 1972.

On the face of it, things seem so much better today. Yet the deep-rooted assumptions that governed life in the early 20th century still persist. We glimpse these attitudes when the two spheres of public and private get blurred, causing many to decry that society’s moral core is under threat. Ultimately, a woman just shouldn’t do for money the things she does selflessly for her family. And if she does provide care work, intimacy work, or reproductive work outside the family for money, then it’s either ‘shameful’ (prostitution), illegal (paid surrogacy), or badly compensated (aged care work).

On this point I always think back to the 1970s Marxist feminists’ take on inequality. These women might seem too radical and angry for today’s chic feminism, but they still have something important to say: in order to function, capitalism requires a fundamental division of labour between the unpaid feminine work of reproduction, and the paid masculine work of production.

And here’s the rub. Care work, our society tells us, is just something women should do “naturally”, and from which they should gain deep fulfilment, irrespective of remuneration. Deep down we just don’t think women should be paid to do something that they are supposedly designed to do by biological instinct. And the idea of  “a natural talent” translates within our labour market to mean “unskilled”. But anyone who has carefully watched or experienced care work knows the immense skills required.

I certainly know; I have a toddler. The most energy that I expend on any working day is between 6am and 8am as I get our son ready for preschool. After I’ve dropped him off I arrive at work, shut the door to my office, and enjoy a quiet cup of tea to recover. My husband and I both agree that, despite our busy jobs juggling lecturing, research and leadership roles, teaching a rambunctious toddler how to live in the world is by far the harder job.

At the other end of the spectrum, I remember visiting my grandmother, suffering from advanced dementia, in her aged care facility. Here, the good care workers exhibited careful interpersonal skills, emotional nuance, practical knowledge and medical know-how. Despite their low pay, this struck me as just as complex a form of knowledge as what you’ll find in my own profession of academia.  I was always surprised at how hard I found tasks that the carers made look easy, like feeding my grandmother a glass of water without her choking. And questions of skills aside, this work is just so crucially important. It is the work of reproducing society; ensuring people have healthy beginnings and worthwhile ends to life.

A mainstream approach to the gender pay gap argues that women earn less because they “choose” the wrong types of work. They tend to work in caring professions such as social work and welfare, education, health and clerical sectors that do not pay well. But this ignores the fact that in many societies, no matter what the type of work, if women are dominant in a vocation, they just won’t be paid well. In Russia, for example, where the vast majority of doctors are women, the profession is relatively poorly paid. And when (mostly female) “cooks” became  (mostly male) “chefs” in the 20th century, it became a significantly higher paid ‘career’, with possible celebrity status to boot (how many female judges are there on recent TV cooking shows?). On the flipside, when teaching went from a male dominated profession to a female career, the pay and prestige both tanked.

Let’s be brutally honest here: this isn’t just about care work, it’s about the work that women do and their lesser status in society. And let’s also not kid ourselves that this is exclusively a gender issue. It’s inseparable from wider intersecting inequalities. Maori, Pasifika and immigrant groups are also overrepresented in areas of work that are valued less, seen as less skilled, and paid poorly.

It’s these points our politicians just don’t seem to get. Former minister for women Louise Upston argued that, “We need young girls to be considering careers where there is high demand, high growth, and high wages. Whether it’s in science and technology, ICT, or the trades”. But this overlooks the very real tension in feminism today, which is the struggle between gaining equity within male dominated domains (the ‘Lean in’ model), or fighting for a world governed by different values, a world in which care labour can be appreciated and rewarded, one in which our economy is organised differently to make care work really matter.  

Steven Joyce argued recently, in defending national levels of inequality, that “Going back through time there are some people that are more successful than others… And some of them want to go into business and be successful and…Others don’t have those motivations, they want other things like the best for their families.” This is a telling little quote. Ultimately, one must choose between family and money. Family – as a domain of care, love and voluntary labour – is not compatible with the world of “business” and “success”. This sentiment amounts to blaming women and minorities for not being ambitious enough, at the same time as assuming that it’s natural for them to want family over careers.

These issues do not generate neat or obvious solutions. They don’t produce easily digestible moments of public outrage and condemnation. They require a far more subversive stance against a reality that is deeply and powerfully ingrained. Don’t get me wrong, yes, we should all be pragmatic feminists some of the time. Go fight for immediate legislative steps to ensure greater transparency on pay, better maternity leave, cheaper childcare, and equal pay for equal work. These are all necessary steps in the immediate term.

But we shouldn’t let our vision for change stop there. We need to start with shifting attitudes and demanding something different. Let’s all start encouraging uncomfortable conversation in our workspaces, not only about how much different employees are paid, but what these pay rates say about how we value different types of labour. Let’s challenge how promotion criteria or pay scales operate in our workspaces to account for the hidden forms of care work that go on unacknowledged and unrewarded.  

Let’s also take a hard look at our own attitudes to the care workers upon which we all depend, the preschool teachers, cleaners, mothers, grandmothers, who underpin our economy. Let’s think about how we might reimagine work routines to make it easier for men, as well as women, to take on family care roles. And for working mothers, let’s start having those private, guarded conversations – about how difficult or impossible the family/work juggle is – in front of our bosses and colleagues. Challenging deeply ingrained social attitudes to care is the first step. From there we can start to reimagine work, family and gender norms in ways that make care work finally count.  


Click here to sign the Treat Her Right pledge to pay the sisters the same as the misters.

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