Getting the Best out of Women

I am probably setting myself up for some criticism with this week’s blog, but it is a reaction to some media responses I have been reading to the Productivity Commission’s recent working paper titled Labour Force Participation of Mature Age Women (available on their website) which analyses the participation rate of women aged 45 – 64 in the paid workforce. In recent decades the participation of women in the workforce has been increasing and this cohort is no different and now accounts for15% of total working hours compared with just 6% thirty years ago. However in this respect Australia lags behind many OECD countries in the contribution to the paid workforce made by this group. Consequently some of the media commentators on the report point out there is further growth potential in the contribution from such women in the future, estimating perhaps another 200,000 such employees could be encouraged to enter the workforce thus increasing our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Now I am all in favour of productivity improvements in fact I would say I devoted a significant part of my career in promoting productivity improvement. There is no doubt in my mind that there have been substantial gains in our standard of living in the last thirty years because of the micro-economic reform agenda and the deregulation of the Australian economy. But hounding more mature aged women into paid employment to make some illusory gains to GDP will make little or no improvement to our quality of life.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we undervalue the work of such women. Because it’s not paid it doesn’t get included in the accounts. If a woman makes a bed or cleans the room in a hotel and gets paid for it, that gets added to the production figures. If she works in a kindergarten minding other people’s children the economy values her output. If she works in aged care attending someone else’s aged parents then she is seen to make a contribution. But if she does these things for her own family and maintaining her own household they are seen as having no economic value.

Then you have the impact of grandmothers, many of who would be in this so-called underemployed category. It often falls to the lot of these women to care for their grandchildren to enable their own daughters to work, free of concerns about childcare. As a result many younger women have their careers facilitated by this assistance.

I feel it is the essence of a democratic society to provide options and choices. Certainly if women want to work in the paid workforce we should do all we reasonably can to remove impediments. It is instructive however that the report found that many of this mature age group of women (about 50%) would prefer to work (ie in the paid workforce) less and not more. The study found that if they were able to work the hours they preferred there would be a reduction in total hours worked of almost 11%.

It is inevitable in the coming years that the participation rate of this group will increase as today’s better educated women rise through the workforce and have longer careers in paid employment. And if that is the choice of these women let us support them as best we can. But don’t let us denigrate those older women who despite the valuable unpaid work they do, choose not to be part of the conventional mainstream economy. They are providing the nation with a hugely beneficial service even if it is not recognised as such by economists fixated on the size and growth of our GDP.
I am sure if we could quantify the benefits of these women as child-carers, supporters of the elderly, and nurturers of families and communities we wouldn’t feel so compelled to decry their non-participation in the paid workforce.

If women want to be high court judges fighter pilots, mining engineers, orthopaedic surgeons or members of the SAS I would say, “Good on them!” But if they choose to indulge their natural talents as nurturers and caregivers our society will be poorer from discouraging them. And it is equally unfair that we make them feel guilty and try to push them into paid employment. Let us assure them that we value their contribution to the quality of life of our communities.

8 Replies to “Getting the Best out of Women”

  1. Interesting article. As an economist, I can say that one of the first things you learn about measures of economic output is that they all have flaws. Every first-year learns the list, and then we all go on using the same deficient measures! It’s the same with utility, a very broad concept of welfare, which has been reduced (good cooking word that) to $. There is a school of thought that says you act according to what you think about and the words you use. Perhaps we also become what we can measure.

    Looking at the women issue specifically, I would add that women more than men have to make irreversible choices, and society does not acknowledge that enough. We also don’t acknowledge the need for the proper nurturing of children, and the benefits that brings to our society. Finally, the standard of living issue is worth a study. I wonder if a broad measure of welfare would look as buoyant as GDP suggests, and I wonder how much of the “goodness” of two income families have been eaten away by increased costs, divorce, sub-optimal parenting.

    1. Thank you David for your response. You have added a couple of insights here that support my thesis. I always knew you were more then “just an economist”!

  2. Ted, I’m surprised you didn’t hear me applauding from your place! As a working mother on the cusp of the period when women were persuaded they could be “super Mums” and “have it all” who worked full time while balancing or should I say juggling motherhood and home management roles, and now being in the age group you refer to, I feel very qualified to comment. I have always felt the cost to the nation of losing full time mothers and housewives has been enormous. Children have been the greatest losers as not only did they lose their Mum’s undivided attention on returning from school, but also her counselling about the events or problems they encountered during the day. This may sound trite, but this is where most of us who had the benefit of mothers waiting at home learned our social skills and strategies to deal with challenging behaviours. I have always maintained the nation would have been far better served had mothers been paid to stay home and care for their children than the subsidies paid for child care and the industries that grew from that need. Not to mention the cost to society of children going getting into mischief without supervision and ending up before the courts. The other great loss from mothers joining the workforce has been the loss of volunteers. Agencies must really struggle now to find folk to assist a multitude of volunteering tasks, previously filled by mothers who found some time on their hands. Even when children grow up and leave the nest, it seems the course has been set for women already in the workforce and they are compelled to grow their careers unimpeded by the demands of children. There seems little point in staying home now when there is no one to be there for. It is very difficult to get any work done around the home by tradesman when both husband and wife work fulltime. Often arranging to meet a tradesman at a specific time when you’ve dashed away from work fails, and the entire arrangement has to be negotiated again. I applaud women who have been brave enough to withstand the pressures of society to be engaged in work outside the home. Anyone who believes women who stay at home do not work, should try a dose of reality and stay home for a month and manage the myriad of domestic chores a Domestic Goddess does. I’m sure they’ll be grateful to go back to their workplace at the end for a rest!

  3. Thanks Ted, a very well timed article for me personally. Simply put, you made me cry with relief. I’m happy being a ‘stay-at-home’ mum, doing a little bit here and there, when I can and when it suits the family. Just every now and then it is important to me to hear that other people appreciate and value what we do. There isn’t an employer who could afford me. Amanda.

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