May 05, 2006

Women's Work is "Off the Books"

Last week, Member of the Second Chamber [of the Dutch Parliament] Sharon Dijkstra, announced a plan to force women with a university education who don't go to work or work part time, to repay part of their educational expenses. But the problem of capital destruction amongst highly-educated women is not the only issue. These women also keep bread out of the mouths of the less educated. Here in the U.S., things are arranged better.

So begins an article published April 27 in NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper, by Heleen Mees, a Dutch attorney, economist and journalist living in the United States.

She asks: "Are Dutch women really that much lazier than American ones?"

Her answer: "Not really, at least not if you account for the hours they spend keeping house."

Mees points out that American women farm out enough domestic work to maids to save themselves 10 hours each week. American women, she adds, dine out more often and use shopping services and nannies more often. She says that in the U.S., as contrasted with Europe, women can, at any time, have their nails manicured and their shoes shined. In New York, for instance, during the weekend, she describes how American women "can get cooking assistance to prepare the meals for the coming week in your home. The visiting culinary expert makes the purchases and assists in preparing the dishes. That way during the week, two-income families can conjure up meals as nutritious as they are tasty." She concludes: "By working more hours per week and by taking shorter vacations, Americans have enough money to purchase these services. Because they work fewer hours and take longer vacations, women in The Netherlands are forced to do the housekeeping in their "leisure time," and at the end of the day they have to paint their nails themselves to boot. Forget about their preferences for leisure time. When you come right down to it, Dutch women work just as hard as American women."

Mees explains that because the American labor market model creates more affluence than the Dutch model, as a result, "highly educated women in the United States don't need to choose between children and career." She maintains that they can have it both ways, "just like men." And she adds, all that additional money can be spent on domestic help and personal services.

In the Netherlands, however, the poor Dutch woman, highly educated with children don't work, or they only work part-time. Unlike American women , the poor things "do the household chores themselves, and are otherwise busy bringing the children to and from music lessons or soccer field." In the meantime, a lot of the less educated are out of the loop. The compensation they receive keeps the pressure of payroll taxes high, which in turn discourages highly educated women from going to work full time.

And then Mees concludes that the Netherlands ought to adopt a plan that obligates "schools to provide after-school care." In addition, she supports lowering taxes on labor, especially working women with children (I assume she means the uneducated ones). She also supports "granting these women, exclusively, a full tax deduction for the expenses of domestic help and child care." She wants them to live in the same kind of luxury that American women experience. She must be talking about a certain class of American women, because most of them I know have no such luxuries.

The choice Mees poses -- Dutch women get alot more time off vs. American women have more domestic help and more money -- may not be the real question at hand anyway. Perhaps the real question is how Western society (any society, for that matter) values domestic (women's)work. There is no pay for it, there is no tax deduction for it, and there most certainly is not any economic value tied to it when we figure our GDP. And when domestic work is "waged," it is usually paid as cheaply as possible, in cash under the table, looked down on, and definitely not covered by labor laws.

It is worth taking a look at how New Zealand, both its government and people, is facing this issue. Here is a report from 1999 entitled Measuring Unpaid Work which was prepared by Statistics New Zealand. In it, among other things, the government determines the average annual unpaid work per person by principal function and activity, determines an actual worth for this work (what it would be paid using prevailing wage statistics), and it sets the stage for creating an actual government "satellite account" for budgetary purposes.

One of the major inspirations for New Zealand's interest in this subject came from Marilyn Waring who is famous for her international bestseller Counting for Nothing (whose subtitle is What Men Value and What Women are Worth) which was also the basis for the Canadian documentary Who's Counting.

Because I can't possibly go into all the details of Waring's considerations and conclusions here, let me just say that I recommend both her book and the film highly. In a nutshell, she demonstrates how women are economically exploited the world over, but to make it even more obscure and mysterious, it is done "off the books." "Women's work" not only does not count, there is no apparatus, no technical means, by which organized society is able to determine the value of women's work even if it wanted to.

Waring studies the evidence, finds all the ways in which women and their value is ignored by NGOs and governments alike, and then proposes ways in which we can transform that sad reality and begin to count the value of women's work in our society, in our communities, and in our homes. New Zealand is one of the few countries taking steps in that direction.


Mimi said...

I was vegetarian for years and when people learned that, this conversation would almost invariably follow:
"Is your husband vegetarian, too?"
"Then you have to cook two different meals every night?"
With almost no exceptions, it was assumed that, because I'm a married female, I do the cooking.
This attitude prevails in in every sphere of housework. Imagine a man saying:
"I'm lucky. My husband likes to cook."
"Just finished scrubbing my kitchen floor..."
"I asked my boyfriend to vacumn (dust...make the bed...clean the toilet...)
Women will NEVER be perceived as "equal" to men as long as we automatically assume the work in the home is theirs. Of course, women embrace this concept, too, often more avidly than men. It's pretty obvious tht this situation contributes to the dearth of women in both high-level corporate jobs and high elected office.
As for "counting" the work of women, that was one of the main thrust of the long-ago feminist movement. The result? Women got to work outside for pay AND do the bulk of the housework.

Mimi said...

Well, haste makes a botched comment. Of course, I meant to write:
Imagine a man saying:
"I'm lucky. My wife likes to cook."
"Just finished scrubbing my kitchen floor..."
"I asked my girlfriend to vacumn..."

thepoetryman said...

It always amazes me that the main people responsible for continuing to propogate the myth that a woman's place is in the home are certain women sold into thinking that they have no worth (compared to men)... Anyone that claims that their place is at home has never met my mom! Good for New Zealand!

Stephen McArthur said...

Mimi - I hope the idea is that we count what has always been described or defined as "women's work" and give it a value that is rewarded accordingly, no matter who does the work. What Waring wants, and her supporters want, is for that work, which no one can avoid (it has to be done by someone) to be paid for by society. My son-in-law is a stay-at-home dad, by choice, doing the child care (3 year old and 3 month old), the dishes, the shopping, the cooking, etc. etc. He doesn't get paid a cent for this work by society. Perhaps as more and more men realize how little valued the work is, and the more of them that actually end up doing it, we might find ways to make it economically worthwhile.