In Australia, we still ask a working mother or a mother returning to work ‘who’s going to look after the kids?’.
This question, from my experience is rarely asked of the dad. Look at our political parties! I haven’t heard anyone ask Scott Morrison or Josh Frydenberg ‘who’s going to look after the kids?’. I haven’t heard this question asked of Anthony Albanese or Richard Marles! But it’s asked of Tanya Pliberseck not to mention the other downright rude questions asked of women in politics ‘why don’t you have kids?’ or ‘why aren’t you married?’ or ‘why are you divorced?’ or god help you if you’re a woman who loves a woman instead of a man. Then you’re butch or aggressive or angry.
Gender roles, parenting and childcare have been front and centre issues pre, during and post our recent Federal election.
During the ‘Barnaby Joyce Affair’ in 2018, I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald written by Jacqueline Maley. Jacqueline’s a thoughtful journalist who punches through to the real issues and ponders interesting social questions. Her article caught my attention and has held my thoughts for some time. The title of the article was When Men Make Abysmal Choices Women Pay the Price. Here’s a link if you’d like a read: Jacqueline Maley’s Article
Maley writes that when a man makes an ‘abysmal’ choice, that results in the breakdown of his marriage, his wife or partner often ends up paying a price that’s financial as well as emotional. The article considers the economic impact on the partner that has given up their career to support the career of their partner. Maley states that she is not saying that women should not stay at home to look after their children however, this caregiver role comes with a risk, particularly economic that is not shared equally between the genders. I’m not concerned with what happened between Barnaby Joyce and his wife. Relationships breakdown and it’s sad and hard for everyone involved. I’m rather more interested in the financial risk that a person (usually the woman) takes on when they are the primary carer of children in support of their partner’s career. This is what caught my interest. Why does a commitment of love come with such financial risk for the partner who takes on the role of primary carer?
Australia’s culture is patriarchal.
What does this mean? Patriarchy is a word thrown around a bit lately. I do it myself! Oh, it’s just the patriarchy I wail, as I weep into my half strength long black with milk, nibbling on my blueberry muffin as I binge watch the latest season of The Crown. It is an easy cry to make. But what does it mean and how does it impact us as providers and carers?
This is what it means to be a patriarchal culture.
A patriarchal culture’s social system and government is marked by the dominance of the father as head of the clan and main provider with wives and children legally dependent. Descent and inheritance is still generally assumed to be passed through the male line.
Anne Summers in her book “Damned Whores and God’s Police” says that in Australia’s patriarchal system the social problem of providing and caring for the young and elderly has been solved by men becoming the providers and women becoming the primary carer.
In Australia, our Government, our legal system, our institutions and our social systems are still, on the whole, set up to support the man as the provider and the woman as the carer.
This plays out in conscious and unconscious systems that support higher earnings for men because they have to support a family. Right! Well, nowadays a man is not the only provider nor the woman the only carer.
Our day to day life no longer reflects this patriarchal view. For better or worse, for most Australian families and households to get by, both parents or partners need to work.*
However, within our society there are conscious and unconscious systems, as well as biases, that perpetuate the belief that men are the providers and women are the main caregivers for children and the elderly. These biases influence the construct of Australia’s childcare, employment and financial system that, in turn, results in unequal pay for women, high costs of child care and unconscious or conscious discriminations around maternity and parental leave. Not to mention our family law and superannuation system. More on superannuation later.
In Australia, the gender wage gap still exists across all wage, cultural and educational groups.
Australia’s cultural and political structure, including our financial systems, have not kept pace with changing demographics, gender roles, sexual and gender identities ( Human Rights Commission, 2018 ). Australian women take home on average $251.20 per week less than men however, Australian women provide 95% of primary care for children and 68% of primary care for the elderly (Human Rights Commission, 2018). Women also tend to work in carer, teaching and nursing roles where their important, essential and highly skilled work is underpaid. It’s a national shame but hey, that’s what women do right! We care. We should want do it for free! Fuck, it really makes me angry.
It is not surprising that the structure of our workplace and financial system reflects the modelling of our patriarchal culture.
The structure of Australia’s superannuation system has not kept pace with changing gender roles and is still structured around men being the main providers and women the main caregivers. Australia’s superannuation system reflects the gender wage gap and the impact of women’s career breaks through lower superannuation balances. When they retire, women who are generally lower income earners, if they’ve earned at all, have on average at retirement, superannuation balances that are under $80,000.
Women are expected to be socially dependent and physically passive because this state is claimed to be necessary for their maternal role. In fact, it is because it enhances the power of men.Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police
I wasn’t sure about Anne Summers statement at first. Does it still apply in 2019? From my own experience, and this includes my own decisions and choices I believe this statement, is still relevant. In some ways more so! Although, I don’t understand it or experience it in terms of men and women but rather masculine and feminine energy. That is, that dominant alpha masculine energy is the energy that is glorified as powerful in patriarchal cultures.
When the systems not working go to the source!
Australia does not have a gender and culturally diverse federal parliament. Consequently, Australia’s laws and social structure have not kept pace with changes in gender roles and gender identity for that matter. In 2019, post Australia’s recent federal election, representation of women in the House of Representatives for the Coalition sits at 20% with 26% of the Coalition’s Cabinet being women (six of the female ministers are senators). However, considering the still current lack of gender diversity in Australia’s parliament it is not surprising that our childcare, wage, social service and superannuation systems have not changed to support women and men as they move through their changing roles (including gender and sexual identities).
Let’s hope this changes. Right now, I have this feeling that I can’t shake that things have gone backwards. I hope I’m wrong. I hope we still see bold policy and bold political agendas from men and women in governing positions. And yes, gender politics requires courage.
It’s not too difficult to see how our patriarchal structure is still playing out in our Government as well as public policy and in turn our institutions.
Our capacity, as women, to absorb a change in our life like divorce or widowhood can make many of us less financially resilient because of our role as primary caregivers and the built in bias of gender pay gaps, lack of child care assistance as well as barriers and biases around maternity and paid parental leave. Also, some women have left the financial decisions up to their partner and they come out of the broken partnership or into widowhood with little or no financial or working experience (let alone money).
Back to the point of Jacqueline Maley’s article.
It’s particularly hard seeing women in their later middle age (when they should be mostly free from caring responsibilities) starting over after their partner has passed away or left them. I talk to women who are exhausted from caring for adult children, grandchildren and elderly parents only to be left financially bereft in their middle age. It is heart breaking.
So, what can we do?
Firstly, become a provider and a carer to ourselves first. Secondly, manage the financial risk when we enter into a marriage or defacto relationship. In ‘risk management speak’ we can avoid the risk, transfer the risk, reduce the risk or accept the risk.
Avoid the risk – don’t get married or move in with a person we love. Mmmm, too late for that (for me anyway)!
Reduce the risk – get involved with your financial life whether a stay at home parent or a working parent. Be strategic about your life, develop skills that can earn you money, seek financial independence and wellbeing. By financial wellbeing I mean being in control, on track with your life, resilient and free to make choices. By financial independence I mean simply knowing about and having an informed consensual involvement in your financial life. Even if you are married or defacto and a stay at home parent, do not leave your financial life up to your partner. Again, develop skills that can earn you money and that you can turn to if needed. Ensure that you both have up to date Wills and that you are both aware of each other’s wishes.
Transfer the risk – ensure that you and your partner have life, total and permanent disability, trauma and income insurance inside or outside of superannuation.
Accept the risk – put in place a financial agreement or pre-nuptial agreement.
The system, at times, is working against you. Ask why?
I’ve started to vote with my money and as well as my electoral vote. I support ideas, policy, institutions and businesses that support women and men as both carers and providers. I support institutions and businesses that care for the wellbeing of all people, all sexual and gender identities and all types of families. And it feels good and it feels empowering.
More than anything (and I don’t always get it right), I accept, provide and care for myself second by second, minute by minute, everyday.
*In 2017 the Australia Bureau of Statistics states that in 64% of Australian families both parents work.
Some places to find help or more information.
Talking about money can be really hard. If you are feeling overwhelmed, I’ve listed some organisations and websites below that could provide you with further support and information.