Sunél’s Blog | The forgotten work of women – a tale of two pictures.

Sunél Veldtman, | 12 March 2021

The cover of the 2021 Gender Budget document of the Indian government, is a vivid painting of a woman at work in rural India – cleaning, cooking, milking the cow and shopping at the food vendor. The artist is a young boy who honoured his mother’s work with his picture, because his father allegedly said that “she is just a housewife, she doesn’t work”.

Across the globe in the UK, the government produced an awareness campaign telling women to ‘stay home’ during the Covid-19 pandemic.  The image showed them ironing, cleaning and childminding, while the only man in the picture was relaxing on a couch. Not surprisingly, the campaign had to be withdrawn after a public outcry.

These two pictures tell the ironic story of the two sides of women’s work – that the traditional work of women is still invisible, meaning it is not truly considered ‘work’ but also, that there are still stubborn, pervasive beliefs that women can or should only do that work. The fact that the government of a developed country can produce such a campaign in 2021, which presumably passed several layers of authorization, is staggering.

But there is more to this story than these two pictures. More than 80 years ago, British economists James Meade and Richard Stone, devised a method of national accounting that today we call the gross domestic product. It was meant to measure the total economic production in a country. It excluded all unpaid labour, like collecting firewood or cooking – exactly the activities that the Indian boy had noticed his mother performing. Phylis Deane, a young woman in their office produced research showing this flaw in their calculation: that it excluded most of the work women performed entirely and specifically ignored the work of rural women in places like India and Africa.

And despite a large body of subsequent research showing that gross domestic product is not a fair or correct representation of all the production in an economy, the definition has largely remained unchanged.

Although the UK government’s picture is enraging and demeaning to women, it is sadly a depiction of the general truth.  The pandemic showed us yet again that women still bear the brunt of domestic and care work, and also that they are/were most likely to lose their jobs, suffer illness or succumb to the disease. According to a UN report, “globally, 70 per cent of health workers and first responders are women, and yet, they are not at par with their male counterparts. At 28 per cent, the gender pay gap in the health sector is higher than the overall gender pay gap (16 per cent).” Single mothers, who now make up a large portion of the workforce, were probably most affected due to the relentless and simultaneous demands on their time by their children and work.

It highlights the value put on women’s work – it is not valued as highly as the work of men. The fact that the pay gap has been so persistent despite interventions over decades can be explained by this notion. Even janitors (mostly men) earn 22 percent more than house cleaners (mostly women) in the USA, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics Data.

Furthermore, studies show that, when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before. The pay declines, not only for women but for the men in that industry too. In other words, the fact that women do most of the work in that industry reduces the value of the work for everyone in the industry.

The fallout for women during the pandemic has highlighted the urgency with which we need to tackle perceptions and social norms about women’s work. The significant price women pay for being born as the opposite, ostensibly wrong gender cannot be allowed to continue. The price is too high when it means not having enough food on the table, not being able to educate their children or not being able to afford a decent retirement. We must, with vigour, eradicate and examine all the ways in which we still overtly discriminate. But, we must also change all the small and silent ways in which we withhold reward from women for their work.

The current picture for women’s work in all spheres of society leaves me saddened for my two daughters who will enter the workplace in the next decade. It leaves me despondent that we have not made much progress in valuing women’s work. I remember a boss saying to me when I was expecting my first child, that it will all change for me and that I would want to stop working when I laid eyes on my baby. What I heard, was that if I was a good mother, I should not be working outside the house. It made me more determined to want to create a different reality for all working women, and this includes the work women do inside the house and outside! I had hoped that I could send my daughters into a world where their work would be equally valued. All their work. Sadly, I can’t.

Fortunately, the pandemic may be just the catalyst needed for the necessary change. Greater flexibility and support for everyone working from home benefits those women who need the flexibility and support in the future. It took a pandemic to highlight the plight of people juggling home, children and work – what women have been doing throughout history.  Now at least, everyone is noticing and hopefully, it will lead to permanent change for women. Hopefully, women’s work and their difficulty in juggling all their work will finally be acknowledged and rewarded.  But until it is, we still need to work hard at insisting on the change.  All of us, because if we don’t, it will never change for our daughters.

In celebration of International Women’s Day and month, Foundation Family Wealth, salute all the women on our team, all our women clients and the women who cross our paths. And we salute all those who have gone before us to make a way for us.

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