Taking account: finally recognising women's work

Despite growing understanding these days that the work and experience of women have been left out or ignored in economics and in policy making, the recent analysis by pioneering economist Marilyn Waring and gender data gap expert Caroline Criado Perez still have the capacity to astonish.

It may be called Gross Domestic Product but the largest sectors of Australian economic activity – unpaid childcare and domestic housework – are simply left out of this key measure of national economic activity.

It’s time for a change, and economist Marilyn Waring believes over the next fifty years GDP could be relegated to a corner and time use surveys, which make women’s essential work visible and valued, take its place.

“I don’t understand how it is possible to continue to make public policy in a context where the largest sectors of economic activity in a nation are invisible,” she noted when delivering the 7th Annual Sydney Community Foundation Maybanke Lecture.

Waring knows a thing or two about this topic. Her seminal “Counting for nothing: what men value and what women are worth” (published in 1988) upended traditional thinking about economic measurement and unpaid work. Waring also happens to be a Nobel Prize nominee, is the youngest politician elected to New Zealand’s Parliament and is now Professor of Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology.

Her ground-breaking work on valuing unpaid labour has made her an icon for feminists over decades, but a growing bunch of her distinguished peers are also now acknowledging the limitations of GDP.

“My work has looked at invisibility of unpaid work. In 1953 nation states of the world accepted a new way of measuring what they thought of as ‘well-being and the economy’ through the imposition of a system of national accounts from which is derived GDP,” she explained.

Despite revisions over the years the framework continues to reflect the different spheres and value of women and men’s labour – a demarcation that she points out would have been very familiar to Maybanke Selfe Wolstenholme Anderson, a women’s rights activist in Sydney in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who the lecture commemorates.

In recent times high profile economists such as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz have recognized there is a serious omission in the value of home-produced goods in GDP, and this has important implications for public policy, she told a packed audience. In fact, the more you think about this analysis the more it seems the very name Gross Domestic Product is a misnomer.

“What Stiglitz and others have done for us at least is to say GDP can no longer be regarded as the tool for assessing per capita wellbeing in any population,” Waring said. “Since 1953 we have been in a straightjacket and been strangulated by this approach to public policy making.”

Anything that comes along replace the current model of GDP needs to be sustainable: and she’s betting on time use surveys. These would  “put alongside the fiscal characteristics the true measurement of environmental characteristics in their own integrity” rather than being monetised by market replacement estimates. 

The last time use data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics was in 2006 and showed extremely gendered outcomes. The individual replacement cost of unpaid work was worth 43% of GDP, the opportunity cost (what might women be earning in the workforce if not doing this work) recorded an equivalent of 57% of GDP, Waring said.

PWC used the ABS data and updated it in 2017 with a conclusion that women undertook 72% of all unpaid work in Australia. The single largest sector in the Australian economy was now unpaid childcare on its own, the second largest was all the rest of the unpaid work. Coming third was the financial and insurance industry, she explained.

(As it happens, the ABS actually axed time use surveys in 2013 citing funding cuts but the Labor party announced last year it would reinstate the surveys if it wins government).

The strong message from Waring is that we really need to get out priorities straight for our own sake and the sustainability of economies around the world. Ignoring women’s unpaid work has major effects on the pay gap, retirement savings and even leisure.

Making women’s work visible and giving them a voice continues to drive her work decades after her book captured attention and put Waring well ahead of the curve.

In a more recent and very welcome look at addressing the same oversights is the forensically researched book by UK feminist Caroline Criado Perez, “Invisible Women”, which traces the gob smacking gender data bias in every aspect of our lives.

The world, she points out, is basically designed for men. Whether it’s mobile phones, or dosages of medicine, public policy, or transport, the default is male lives and work.

There are so many examples. In most countries, women use public transport more than men but their needs are often ignored in planning and building infrastructure, particularly when they have small children. The queue for the women’s toilets in all kinds of public buildings reflects a classic failure to recognise and cater to their needs – or to involve them in decision making.

And medical science is only now discovering differences in how women react to certain medications or that they have different heart attack symptoms to men. These are literally life-threatening examples of the invisibility of women in data.

Yet the upside from addressing the gap is huge. It means women are able to fully participate in their society and boost their workplace participation and delivers better outcomes for all.

Making visible the reality of women’s work and contributions is all about valuing what they do. As Waring and Criado Perez have both detailed, these are not peripheral special interest concerns but core to the future of societies and economies around the world.

Where would we be without our history? asked Waring at the end of her lecture.

And where would we be without the work of so many brilliant women, some of whom are only now being recognised across science, academia, the arts and politics. Thankfully  they are helping to life the lid and we can start to examine the world and build a future which takes everyone into account rather than the one-eyed version of the past.

For a recap of Marilyn’s lecture:


And details of Invisible Women:


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