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Creating a care economy

By Tanja Kovac - posted Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Private polling of women, by women, for women, commissioned by EMILY's List Australia in the lead up to the Federal Election last year, of Australian women in six marginal seats, revealed a troubling consistent theme – the daily challenge of juggling paid employment with considerable care responsibilities at home.

"I mind grandchildren one day a week and support four elderly parents aged between 81 & 84 years old when they need us" said one woman in the marginal seat of Latrobe in Melbourne's outer-east."I spend about three days a week on that at the moment. I have a nephew who is dying of leukaemia so there's a support role for the family too."

Women in Australia are under extraordinary pressure. Pressure to maintain a work life, a family life and to contribute to the communities around them. At the centre of the challenge in women's daily lives, is time to care.


Care is work perceived to be feminised labour and hence without value. The historic trivialisation of caring for the young, old, ill and disabled is a continuing market failure. The creation of a care economy is unfinished business of the women's revolution.

Despite increased participation of women in the workforce, women continue to perform the majority of care work, whether formal care work for a wage, or unpaid caring in the home. This is not feminist propaganda, but statistical fact.

90% of Australian workers in nursing, therapies, pre-primary school teaching and childcare are female and 88.4% of workers in the community sector providing care through counselling, family violence support and case management are also women. Care at home is also heavily gendered, with Access Economics finding 71.3% of all primary caregivers in the domestic realm are also women.

In both the public and private spheres, the undervaluing of care work has led to inequities in pay, employment and wellbeing between women and men.

The provision of care, whether for children, the elderly, the ill or the infirm, involves similar tasks, particularly assistance with the activities of daily living for another, dependent person. Feeding, dressing, toileting, bathing and communicating are essential components of care work. To these responsibilities, Carers Australia also adds constant vigilance, supervision, encouragement and nurturing.

Although there are intrinsic problems with attempting to assess the value of care, something that transplants traditional characteristics of labour with love, valuing care in economic terms is important work. Without this valuation, the cost of care to the community remains hidden, allowing the market place to benefit without contributing to the cost.


Security4 Women, a national women's group committed to the lifelong economic security of Australian women, makes women's work visible so it can be valued, exposing the tension between unpaid work in the home, voluntary work in the community, and paid work in the market.

In the ground breaking report, Scoping the Care Economy, care provides both a macro and micro economic basis for the entire economy, while also reforming economics closer to home, from the perspective of households.

Report writer, Valerie Harper observes that "by challenging the assumption that economic actors are non-relational, detached individuals who make decisions based on individual choice, feminist discourse on the care economy asserts the interdependence of people across the life course, from birth to old age. The care economy focuses on providing for human need, rather than the production of goods and services."

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About the Author

Tanja Kovac is a lawyer and writer. She is National Co-ordinator of EMILY's List Australia

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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