On November 11, 2021, Sam Mostyn, an independent company director, long-time women’s advocate and current president of advocacy group Chief Executive Women, arrived at the National Press Club to deliver what would subsequently be hailed as a landmark address.
Mostyn promised to deliver insights from “a relentless two years during which women had been trying to deal with the upheaval to their world caused by COVID”. She promised to extrapolate from those insights some key lessons regarding “what Australia could — and should — look like as we emerged from one of the most disruptive and challenging periods in our history”.
Given the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women, and given Australia’s relatively recent feminist reawakening that culminated in the March4Justice rallies across the country, it came as no surprise that Mostyn was offered such a prominent platform at the National Press Club to canvass these issues and chart a course forward.
Many listeners were probably expecting a speech that focused on the more traditional Chief Executive Women territory of women in leadership and on boards, issues that have topped the corporate feminist agenda for more than a decade. But Mostyn had a radical surprise in store: she would have a laser-like focus on care, the so-called “care economy” and “care infrastructure”, in particular the low pay and poor conditions that are the hallmark of the care industries dominated by women, including aged care, early years education and care and disability support services.
Mostyn framed her remarks in terms of Australia’s characterisation as a lucky country. “In Australia, we like to tell ourselves that we are the Lucky Country … and yet among our vast natural resources, possibly the most underrated, undervalued has been the unpaid (and low-paid) work of women,” she said. “We are ‘lucky’ to have benefited from that for so long.”
We virtually never hear how care and economic performance and success go hand in hand, Mostyn added. “They are inextricably linked, and they are the foundation of our future prosperity.”
The gauntlet was thrown. The whole purpose of Mostyn’s speech, she said, was “to put care at the centre of the economy”. Watching at home, I was blown away.
Mostyn’s speech represented a turning point for Australian feminism; a transition from the lean-in, “career feminism” that had dominated mainstream Australian feminist discourse for nearly a decade to a “care feminism” that grappled with the critical role that care, and care infrastructure, plays in our economy — it is the work that makes it possible for other women to work.
It is also, according to countless economists, a larger and larger portion of the economy with each passing year, with most jobs growth over the next five years expected in services industries (the majority in healthcare services), where 90% of women already work, according to the Grattan Institute. What’s more, there are expected to be far fewer jobs in the more traditional male-dominated industries of agriculture, manufacturing, construction and mining. The economy has been changing before our very eyes, though it seems some people hadn’t noticed.
In plain sight
Mostyn’s point was that this was the future of the economy, and there was a lot to be gained — from both a social and economic perspective — by facilitating a long-overdue shift in how we think about care. Comparing a $1 million public investment in education, health and construction, the Australia Institute estimated the employment boost in male-dominated construction is minimal (1.2 jobs) compared with the female-dominated health sector (10.2 jobs). That’s a ratio of 10 jobs in education and care to one in more traditional “infrastructure” for the same amount of stimulus investment. Yet the Coalition government — at the height of the pandemic — continued to direct all the cash stimulus towards traditional hard-hat/hi-vis industries, with women missing out. It would seem the Coalition government had no shortage of hard heads donning hard hats.
Mostyn was also keen to explore the appalling way we as a society don’t value the critical caring work women do simply because women do it. We are missing out in terms of reaping the social dividend of increased community wellbeing, and the human capital formation and productivity dividend, boosting long-term productivity by freeing up more people, usually women, with caring responsibilities to work. She clearly understood that the women who do the unpaid and low-paid caring work might have zero interest in “leaning in” to the corporate leadership roles typical of members of her organisation. And thank bloody Christ they didn’t subscribe to that singular definition of workplace “success” for women. Because without our care workers, we would live in a society that doesn’t provide even the minimum standards of care to our disabled and aged loved ones or the best start in life for our children.
It was high time women in executive roles showed they had the backs of the largely female care workforce. A bit of good old-fashioned feminist solidarity — to my mind — was long overdue.
And now where?
In a 2021 essay for The New York Times, Anne Marie Slaughter, chief executive of the New America Foundation, made a similar, scathing observation about the care economy and care infrastructure, in particular the extent to which they had not been on the agenda of women in executive roles. Entitled “Rosie could be a riveter because of a care economy”, Slaughter’s NYT piece scolded the more recent generation of corporate feminists for not paying enough attention to care.
“The value and visibility of care goes far beyond the definition of infrastructure. It is the central question of 21st-century feminism, and one far too long ignored or downplayed not only by men, but also by many prominent women, particularly wealthy white women who have been able to leverage the privilege of race and class,” Slaughter wrote. “Care feminism has long taken a back seat to career feminism. Advocating for child or elder care may be less glamorous and newsworthy than breaking glass ceilings to become the first woman in a role traditionally reserved for a man, but both are necessary if we are ever to achieve true gender equality.”
Mostyn’s speech represented the brave new vanguard of care feminism in Australia, and a very welcome break from the dominant career feminism. The vital issues of the value of care and the value of women’s paid and unpaid care work were, at last, moving from the fringes of the debate to the centre. And the fact that this unequivocal message was coming from the president of Chief Executive Women, an organisation traditionally associated with career feminism, was symbolic of how mainstream care feminism was fast becoming — and the potential impact it could have.
But there were, as there always are, trailblazers who laid the groundwork for this moment, both here in Australia and around the world.
Those who passed this way before
Decades before Mostyn spoke, feminists began making inroads in policy and economics circles towards the recognition of the value of women’s unpaid and paid care work. This work was initially described as “reproductive labour”, i.e. the childcare, elder care, cooking, cleaning, shopping and domestic logistics (now more popularly known as the “mental load”). Basically, all the work that women do unpaid in their own home or for little pay in other people’s homes of care settings.
The Italian Marxist feminist Silvia Federici first advanced the argument when she founded the Wages for Housework movement in 1972. Influenced by another Italian feminist, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and the American activist Selma James, who argued that by working without pay in the home women were producing the labour force that capitalism exploited for profit, Federici founded the American chapter of Wages for Housework and wrote her own foundational essay in 1975, titled Wages Against Housework.
“To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of cooking, smiling and fucking,” Federici wrote. “At the same time, it shows that we have cooked, smiled and fucked throughout the years, not because it was easier for us than for anybody else, but because we did not have any other choice. Our faces have become distorted from so much smiling.”
In response to the argument that women should do this work for free as “labourers of love” because they were just naturally better suited to care work, Federici was scathing. It was not “natural” for care to be the soul preserve of one gender, she argued, nor was it natural for some to be subjugated by an economic system that benefited a few; they were merely conventions of an all-encompassing economic system that had become so dominant we could scarcely imagine an alternative.
In 1988 the New Zealand economist Marilyn Waring took up the cause and published her ground-breaking book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth. The book explored how mainstream economics and the systems on which modern calculations of gross domestic product are based (the universal measure of a nation’s economic wellbeing) exclude and make invisible women’s contribution through “life-sustaining” unpaid labour — that “reproductive labour” Federici and her generation wrote about.
Waring had been appointed chair of the New Zealand government’s Public Expenditure Committee in 1978. This experience opened her eyes to how invisible and marginal women’s experiences were in the policy process, even though as half of the population they were profoundly affected by the spending decisions the powerful committee took. Waring demanded access to information from every government department about the gendered impacts of spending decisions. She also asked a treasury official to explain why GDP excluded women’s unpaid work. The answer: GDP formulations were based on the United Nations’ System of National Accounts.
“Right, I want to see the rules,” Waring said, according to a 2018 profile in The Monthly. But it turned out there wasn’t a copy of the UN’s National Accounts in New Zealand, or Australia for that matter. “So, all these nations were using the United Nations System of the National Accounts, these rules that run the whole of the data that everyone uses, without anyone having read them … that’s what we call propaganda,” Waring told The Monthly.
Waring later travelled to New York to research the System of National Accounts. A soul-destroying moment occurred when she read a 1953 edition that casually dismissed women’s unpaid labour as “of little or no importance”. GDP, in excluding the unpaid labour of one gender, is based on “an ideology of applied patriarchy”, she told The Monthly. “Human activities of great value are rendered meaningless.”
Though the System of National Accounts was revised in 1993 and again in 2008 as a result of Waring’s work, the exclusion of women’s unpaid work remained consistent, though the National Accounts made a provision for a separate but consistent set of satellite accounts that gave value to women’s unpaid work but always sat alongside GDP.
Other economists, like the US-based Nancy Folbre, a professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Political Economy Research Institute, have devoted their life’s work to this issue. In 1998, Folbre received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work exploring how the care sector, defined as activity in the home and the market, was a crucial part of the economy but operated differently to other parts of the economy. “You can’t measure the productivity of a childcare centre the way you would, say, a car factory … the incentives are nothing alike,” Folbre explained in a 2021 interview with The New York Times. “The profits don’t go only to the centre owner. Instead, the benefits are shared by children and their parents, and society as a whole.”
Nearly two decades after Folbre was awarded that Genius Grant, the term “infrastructure” in reference to care-related work was first used by Ai-jen Poo, an American labour activist and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in her 2015 book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.
“If we can deliver water and electricity to every home in the country, we should be able to create good care options for everyone,” Poo wrote. “If the definition of infrastructure is that which enables commerce and economic activity, what could be more fundamental?”
The book sets out a roadmap for how America could become a more caring nation, provide solutions for fixing the fraying care sector and provide opportunities for women, immigrants and the unemployed. A bestseller, Poo’s book put the idea of care and care feminism on the contemporary feminist agenda. “Care is the strategy and the solution toward a better future for all of us,” she proclaimed.
By 2019, those who had long sounded the alarm about the ticking time bomb of care were being taken seriously. The care economy was on the agenda of the four female senators who ran for the presidency, bringing attention to the issue even before the pandemic threw it into even sharper relief.
In 2020, the newly elected Biden administration wove care as “infrastructure” firmly into its pandemic recovery plans. President Biden included money for home-based care for the elderly and the disabled under the umbrella of infrastructure, as part of a $2 trillion package he proposed in March. The next month, he proposed more funding for paid family leave, universal early years education and care, and $225 billion for childcare. And in May, business leaders lent their support to the cause when Time’s Up launched the Care Economy Business Council, a coalition of nearly 200 businesses across industries with a mission to reimagine the nation’s caregiving infrastructure so people could get back to work and build a stronger, more resilient economy.
Governments and industries could now see the need to actively invest in care industries and ergo valued them more highly, seeing them as an essential part of the economy and not just some adjunct that women do because they love it.
Here in Australia Elizabeth Hill, an associate professor of political economy at the University of Sydney and co-convenor of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable, has been foundational to this shift.
“It is absolutely extraordinary that we’ve got to this place,” Hill told me. “We used to be a voice in the wilderness, and now we have so many friends and colleagues of all persuasions making the kinds of arguments that we’ve been making for a really long time. And making them in powerful ways and from really powerful platforms.
“It is edifying,” Hill said. “See? We were right all along.”
I could, however, recall a time in recent memory when this was most certainly not the case, and the dire warnings of what would happen — and did happen — if we failed to change tack.
Caring time bomb
When I was working at the UK’s Equal Opportunity Commission more than a decade ago, a policy officer came to me with a paper on the undervaluing of women’s work. I was the head of media at the time, and she was hoping I could get a bit of press for this beige-sounding but vitally important feminist issue.
The undervaluing of women’s work accounts for about one-fifth of the gender pay gap in Australia, but it is rarely talked about outside of the most earnest of policy circles. The situation in the UK at the time was broadly similar. The EOC paper warned that the undervaluing of women’s work was contributing to “a caring time bomb”. Those words, and that stark warning, have stayed with me ever since.
The undervaluing of women’s work is essentially the fact that female-dominated industries are valued less than male-dominated industries simply because the work is done by women. Working in a female-dominated occupation can reduce pay by as much as 9%. Nowhere is that clearer than in the caring professions, where we have — for too long — expected women to work for poverty wages as “labourers of love”. The tragic consequences of that became visible in the course of the pandemic, as each and every day our aged care homes, early years sector, the disability sector and nursing struggled to cope.
We had reached the end of the fuse on the “caring time bomb” that the EOC paper warned about more than a decade previously. And the impacts have been horrific.
In aged care, a 2021 report warned that poor pay, stress and excessive paperwork had pushed Australia to the precipice of an aged care staffing crisis. The report warned of a “mass exodus”, with 65% of workers intending to leave the residential aged care industry within the next five years.
By the summer of 2022 — in the midst of the Omicron wave — those dire predictions came true. Against a backdrop where more aged care residents died of COVID-19 in January 2022 than in the whole of the previous year, and amid shocking reports of neglect due to understaffing, unions and industry groups jointly appealed to the federal government for help to resolve desperate staffing shortages. The clearest sign of that desperation: a call for the federal government to deploy the military to residential aged care homes.
Over in the childcare sector, the January 2022 Omicron wave was also taking its toll. Four hundred and twenty childcare centres had closed across Australia due to COVID-19, and more were warning they would have to close due to staff shortages and reduced attendance. By February, the federal government was being urged to inject $1 billion into the sector to fix the crisis. More than one in eight childcare centres had waivers from the sector’s quality regulator to allow them to operate for at least 12 months without meeting legal staffing requirements. Personally, as a parent of two children, I daren’t let my mind entertain the possibilities of what understaffed childcare centres might lead to. It’s too distressing.
In the healthcare sector, where 75% of the workforce is female, thousands of fed-up nurses took to the streets in New South Wales for the first strike in more than a decade to demand better pay and conditions. Such was the strength of feeling, they marched in defiance of orders from the Industrial Relations Commission to call the action off. Keep your “claps for carers”, was their message. We need more than that.
As Mostyn suggested in her speech at the National Press Club, Australia was indeed a “lucky country” to have availed itself of these women’s good will to work for so little or no pay. But Australia’s luck, it was clear, was now running out.
People across Australia could connect the undervaluing of women’s care work to their own lives, to the lives of their elderly relatives, to the lives of their children, to the lives of their disabled friends and family in a real way that they, perhaps, couldn’t before.
A clear sign of this shift and new momentum towards care feminism: the unlikely coalition of Women for Progress in early 2022, a group of prominent women from diverse backgrounds and experiences whose aim was to highlight the role of women and girls in the COVID-19 recovery as a critical policy issue for government. The group ranged in membership from an icon of the Australian women’s movement, Wendy McCarthy, and former foreign minister Julie Bishop to ACTU president Michele O’Neil and Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott. It also, notably, included Chief Executive Women’s Sam Mostyn.
Among their calls to action was an unprecedented investment in Australia’s caring infrastructure, including greater investment in early years education and the proper remuneration of the (mostly women) who did vital, dare we say essential, care work.
By early 2022, the movement from career feminism to care feminism was well advanced — and long overdue. It goes without saying that an army of carers, paid and unpaid, should not have been forced to pay such a high price in the course of the pandemic in terms of their wellbeing and mental health to help prompt this reappraisal, but we have arrived at a very different place. This has set us up brilliantly to reassess some of the issues so vital to a new deal for women at work who have not been at the top of the lean-in agenda.