Women are "working fewer hours, in lower-paid industries and in lower-status jobs" than men, writes Jessica Irvine. Despite decades of feminism, women are still doing most of the unpaid cooking, cleaning and caring for children. They are still struggling to break into senior, highly paid jobs. In the Australian Financial Review Alan Mitchell suggested a way of dealing with the problem … but it’s not a solution most feminists or egalitarians will like.
As Irvine observes, there are two arguments for increasing women’s participation in paid work. The first is an argument for social justice. Society relies on women to bear children and it’s not fair that doing so makes it more difficult for those who are qualified to compete for high paid, high status work. And it is certainly not fair that women without children still find it more difficult to get ahead at work.
The second argument is economic. "Economists at Goldman Sachs estimate closing the gap between male and female participation rates would boost Australia’s annual economic production by 13 per cent", writes Irvine. This would "help cool inflation pressure, meaning lower interest rates than otherwise."
A 2009 report by Tim Toohey, David Colosimo and Andrew Boak at Goldman Sachs JBWere argues that women are source of highly educated labour just waiting to be unlocked. As Andrew Norton notes notes, women with university qualifications are far less likely to work full-time than men even when they don’t have children.
But according to Toohey, Colosimo, and Boak, another problem is that women with higher degrees tend to focus on just two industries: health care and social assistance, and education and training. Australia could achieve a significant boost to output if women could be persuaded to look beyond these two fields. By moving into traditionally male dominated fields, women would not only help to address skill shortages but would also improve their productivity.
In the Australian Financial Review (paywalled), Alan Mitchell argues that one way to encourage highly educated women to take on senior, highly paid jobs and work more hours is to allow more unskilled workers to migrate to Australia.
Mitchell cites a US study that suggests unskilled immigration has led to an increase in the number of hours worked by highly skilled women. In ‘Cheap Maids and Nannies: How Low-Skilled Immigration Is Changing the Time Use of High-Skilled Women‘ Patricia Cortes and Jose Tessada write:
We find evidence that low-skilled immigration has increased hours worked by women with a professional degree or a PhD. The estimated magnitudes suggest that the low-skilled immigration flow of the 1990s increased between 20 and 30 minutes a week the average time of market work of women with a professional degree or a Ph.D. Consistently, we find a decrease in the time highly skilled women spend in household work and an increase in their reported expenditures on housekeeping services. We also find that the fraction of women in this group working more than 50 (and 60) hours a week increases with low-skilled immigration, and that the effect is particularly large for those with young children.
Mitchell agues that "an increase in the supply of unskilled migrants or foreign guest workers could increase the labour market opportunities for skilled women" in Australia by making nannies and cleaners cheaper and more easily available. That would help encourage more women to train for and move into highly paid jobs involving long hours of work.
Back in 2007 the Economist reported that: "On climbing frames in the smarter neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, white toddlers occasionally shout to each other in Spanish." They shout in Spanish because: "They learn their first words from Mexican nannies who are often working illegally, just like the maids who scrub Angelenos’ floors and the gardeners who cut their lawns."
Mitchell notes that domestic workers in the US "are highly flexible in meeting the demands of their employers." A 2006 study of domestic workers in New York City found that half were working overtime — often more than 50 to 60 hours a week — and many did not receive overtime pay. Some workers in the study were on visas that were tied to their employment. If they left their employer, they became undocumented.
It’s not surprising that migrant workers who are in the country illegally or on restrictive visas are affordable and highly flexible. Mitchell acknowledges that a "lower rate of illegal immigration in Australia might mean that unskilled migrants have less of an effect on the cost of domestic services." But he argues that the effect of increased legal immigration would be in the same direction.
From a purely economic perspective Mitchell’s solution looks attractive. Australia’s GDP increases, women have greater incentives to qualify for highly paid jobs and will end up earning more, and migrants from poor countries are able to increase their incomes and send money home. The only people who are worse off are the Australian domestic workers who see their wages and working conditions fall.
But as Irvine suggests, many feminists are less worried about GDP and productivity and more worried about the social injustice of male-female division of labour. Almost everyone in the rich world benefits from cheap labour in poorer countries. Children’s toys, clothing, footwear, household appliances and electronics are all made using cheap foreign labour. Added to that, an increasing number of services such as call centres are also being outsourced. But domestic labour makes the inequality of this relationship more visible and much more personal.
Nothing screams class so loudly as the distinction between those who hire servants and those who are hired. For the aspirational classes, McMansions and flashy cars are a poor substitute for the true marker of affluence — staff. In his vision for an egalitarian class-free utopia, Edward Bellamy imagined the abolition of domestic service. When asked who does the housework, one of Bellamy’s character’s responds:
"There is none to do," said Mrs. Leete, to whom I had addressed this question. "Our washing is all done at public laundries at excessively cheap rates, and our cooking at public kitchens. The making and repairing of all we wear are done outside in public shops. Electricity, of course, takes the place of all fires and lighting. We choose houses no larger than we need, and furnish them so as to involve the minimum of trouble to keep them in order. We have no use for domestic servants."
Many egalitarians worry that relationships fostered by domestic service undermine our sense of equality. Servants — particularly those who face deportation if they’re sacked — are encouraged to be deferential and responsive. And this is what bothers many feminists about traditional male-female roles in the family. Women who are financially dependent on their husbands lack power in the relationship. Mitchell’s proposal sees women entering into unequal relationships with other women.
The economic and social justice arguments point in different directions. What many feminists want is for men to work less — not women to work more. They want highly educated men to spend less time earning money in the market and more time doing laundry, scrubbing bathrooms and caring for children. That won’t boost GDP or solve the problem of an ageing population, but that was never the point.