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Workplaces: why male power must be cut

By Eva Cox - posted Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Recently the English New Statesman reviewed the situation of women in the UK and found that all is not well. This analysis begins: “Families and firms are at war. It will only be won when parents - fathers as well as mothers - can care for their children without harming their careers. It’s the economy that must change.”

It goes on to proclaim “The Sex War is over. Girls outperform boys at school and are streaming through higher education. Young women are now taking home the same size wage packets as young men. But the celebrations have to wait. A new, tougher battle has to be fought. It is not a duel between men and women, but between families and firms. This family war will be won only when parents - fathers as well as mothers - can care for their children without dumbing down their careers.”

So what’s happening here?


First, the UK seems to have much of what we need. Women are entitled to statutory maternity pay, mostly at 90 per cent of their weekly earnings and men are entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave (pay negotiable). There is a statutory right to ask for part-time work when women have young children. Figures suggest that the pay gap between men and women is relatively low (3 per cent) under the age of 30 but rises rapidly when children appear. This reflects their move to part-time or lower status jobs. The solution offered is more sharing by male and female parents of the downside of time off, lower pay and part-time work, loss of status. This seems very unenterprising, so let us go for some major changes.

We need to catch up on some UK provisions but, more importantly, to change long term underlying prejudices and assumptions that are often unquestioned. Women are emerging into workplaces that reflect very archaic attitudes about both work and place. This is shown by our lack of paid maternity leave. Instead, there is just a one-off cash payment of $5,000. We have been promised the right to ask for part-time work when the new laws come through, but it is a bit vague on details of how it will work. We earn about 84c to every male dollar and, as in the UK, women have many part-time and low paid jobs.

There is also the problem with who does domestic work. The UK article doesn’t cover the issue but, as I write, new local data shows that while more women have moved into paid work, men have not taken up their share of household tasks. The latest time use study shows that men do no more a day on domestic duties than a decade and a half ago, but women have cut their time use by 10 minutes a day. In child care, women put in nearly an hour a day caring for children (not including multi-tasking) versus 22 minutes by men. Their time is also more likely to be play time than chores. Even non-employed fathers spend less time on domestic work than non-employed mothers and full-time working mothers spend almost double the time on household duties than equivalent fathers. And it’s not changing with younger people: females 15-24 still spend 1.7 the time that males of this age do on domestic chores.

It seems unlikely that more men will start to work part-time and so take on more care and domestic work, and/or the lower paid jobs that often mirror the home care tasks. Few men have had the socialisation that encourages women to take on unpaid care and low status, low pay jobs. We need to look at how to shift the basic attitudes to paid and unpaid work, the gender stereotyping of jobs and ridiculous undervaluing of the often more productive part-time worker. This involves questioning the confusion of long hours of being there with productivity and the need to re-evaluate underlying assumptions about skills and job prestige that reflect archaic male definitions of value setting.

Technology has changed both the content of paid and unpaid work and the need to always be present in many jobs. People have basically stopped directly making things by hand and more time is now spent offering services to people, or thinking.

These tasks depend not on arcane skills with tools and widgets but on human capacities to determine needs and communication. Most workers are now no longer labouring but thinking. But these changes are not reflected in revaluing types of workplaces, use of time and diverse hierarchies of skills and knowledge. Pay, status and value have moved somewhat but within parameters still set in the 19th to mid- 20th centuries.


There is a deep gender mindset to these categories which needs reviewing so we can design new ways of working and redefining skills and valuing to solve some of the many problems we face socially and economically.

We need to rebuild our social system so that it values relationships, including unpaid care, community and nurture as highly as paid workplace activities. Then there may be better balance between them. This would allow the revaluing of care-related paid occupations, which are generally paid less than other similarly skilled jobs. Redefining productivity would also allow for the proper valuing of part-time work in areas where services, productivity and creativity are probably highest in early or shorter hours on the job.

It would also make sense to recognise the costs of the present system in the under use of qualified women and the loss of their services, if they move into lower level jobs or out of the paid workforce.

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First published in the Rationalist in June 2008.

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About the Author

Eva Cox is the chair of Women’s Electoral Lobby Australia and director of Distaff Associates.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Eva Cox
Related Links
Gender equality: What matters to Australian men and women (PDF 540KB)
It's about time: Women, men, work and family - final paper 2007
Who cares? Managing flexibility in the workplace

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