The father of economics lived with his mother. She took care of him for his entire life. Yet he never thought to value her work to clean the house, cook his food or care for him.
In 1776, Adam Smith wrote the words that shaped our modern understanding of economics in his book ‘The Wealth of Nations’. Yet he completely overlooked all the effort and support that created the space for him to study, theorise and publish; ignoring the washing, cooking, cleaning and general caring that his mother was providing.
Two hundred years later, whilst I was growing up, the UN finally started to call for housework to be included in GDP. Would all the love, care and attention my mother was providing in our home finally be recognised and rewarded, making her feel that she was a valuable member of society and not a dependent; no longer having to ask for money or account for how it was spent? Sadly, the answer was no, and in truth nothing really changed. GDP continued to exclude domestic duties despite being valued at the equivalent of some 50% of the economy. Women got to work and joy of joys, do the housework as well; the latter without any extra pay or benefits, or any time off.
Life changing global events have challenged the paradigm before. In WWI and WWII women entered the workforce in their thousands in order to free men up to fight. But when peace arrived they were to return to their domestic duties and tend to the children and the home. After all how would a man have the time or the energy to fulfil his stereotypical role as the breadwinner and head of his family if he didn’t have a submissive support worker to keep him free from domestic drudgery? At least this situation contributed to the heightened awareness of gender inequality with many more women aware of their true contribution, their potential, and the need for change.
Will the Covid19 pandemic finally enable us to recognise the true benefits and also costs of care in its broadest sense? The need for everyone in the household to work together has never been greater — especially now. Without the extra help that might normally be received from grandparents, neighbours, nannies or cleaners, will people fully recognise all contributions to household well-being? So far it seems that it’s women that are picking up the slack yet again.
Gender norms are hard to shake. But if there was ever a time to re-examine the assumption that women can simply do it all, without recognition of the value of that work, it is now.