Fighting over who does the dishes is a long standing Australian tradition. But do we need a public debate about whether men need to do more housework or should we simply acknowledge that the work we do at home has more meaning than any other?
Following the June launch of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's report the value of unpaid work will be debated again. But the Striking the Balance discussion paper is yet another contribution to the debate that undervalues the importance of washing the dishes.
We continue to justify the importance of unpaid work by comparing it with the cash economy. Neat graphs demonstrate that stay-at-home mums should be earning six-figure salaries. Yet all the graphs in the world are exposed by the reality that we pay our house cleaners $12 an hour. The only valued human functions are connected to the economy and contributing to the bottom line. Unpaid work doesn't rate an iota of importance in our modern world.
Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward is keen to impress upon us the inequality of unpaid work. The statistics showing women still do most of the housework, even when they work full time and have a male partner who is unemployed, should put men to shame. But using a confrontational approach to move men along won't be productive.
Yes, men need to participate in the unpaid work of the home, but media shaming tactics are reactionary. They do nothing to raise the value of unpaid work. If we want more men doing unpaid work we must change our attitudes towards participating in the most crucial functions of our society.
No one wants to do the housework. Women do too much, men need to do more and our precious children are being let off the hook. Our education system's emphasis on homework is producing generations of high school students who have not learned the importance of contributing to a functioning household. "Can't help clean up tonight, I've got homework," has become the standard excuse. By not teaching children they have a role to play in the running of a household we are not instilling in them the most basic life skills.
Children continue to fight against cleaning their room, not because of angst but because they know it is a task that is given little respect in our society. Adult children are leaving home with packets of two-minute noodles and moving into share houses that don't have dishwashers. What will they do when confronted with a tea towel for the first time?
The truth is unpaid work is priceless. It is the foundation of all other work that takes place. The work of the house is directly responsible for our health and wellbeing. Without a clean environment in which to live and sleep, without healthy food cooked to sustain and provide vitality and without appropriate waste disposal systems our quality of life and ability to participate fully and productively in paid work will be diminished.
Missing from the work-life debate is an acknowledgment that most of us have a connection to the simplicity and sustenance of work around the home. Everyone has their bathroom rituals, their favourite meal and gets immense satisfaction from the daily tasks of life. This satisfaction is difficult to locate in the world of paid work, yet we refuse to acknowledge the comfort and value of the home. We spend more time away from our homes than ever before.
Maybe the balance that really needs to be struck is between the way we value paid and unpaid work, not who is doing the most of it. It isn't something you can write a policy for because unpaid work can't, and shouldn't, be talked about in terms of economics. Unpaid work is the stuff of real life.
Sure, men should clean the toilet more often, but if we want real change we need to stop undervaluing the work that really sustains our health and wellbeing.
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