FWF Quarantine Q&A: Emma Dawson

Emma Dawson is a former senior policy advisor to the Rudd and Gillard governments, and a regular commentator on the impact of policy and government initiatives on women. Along with Janet McCalman she has edited What Happens Next? which sets out a progressive, reforming agenda to tackle the twin crises of climate change and inequality.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is not just an argument for women to be treated equally to men in our existing social and economic systems; it is the struggle to restructure those systems — to disrupt and replace the patriarchal framework that dictates our social norms and economic priorities. It is not enough to strive for equal representation in the systems of power that have evolved over centuries of patriarchy; we must re-make those systems so that the experiences of women, and all oppressed and marginalised people, regardless of gender, are no longer regarded as other, but as fundamental.

As my friend Jane Caro has said, feminism is the ongoing fight by one half of the world’s population to be taken seriously by the other half. It’s the refusal to be regarded as ‘less than’ due to our sex, and the determined assertion of our right to participate fully in the decisions that dictate our collective way of life. Feminism is not something I ever opted into: it’s not a choice, it’s an imperative.

Your chapter in What Happens Next is on the role of the foundational economy and argues for a fundamental shift in the way we value and reward the jobs done by the essential workers in our society. Tell us about your chapter and what feminist economists call the ‘sexual division of labour’.

There are many chapters in the book that argue for conventional government stimulus investment in such things as transport infrastructure, construction and manufacturing — big-picture thinking thinking about harnessing technology and mission-based industry policy to drive innovation, diversify our industrial base and build resilience and sustainable growth in our economy. These are really important arguments, but so much of my work is concerned with the parts of the economy and our society that are taken for granted, and which have been neglected by policy thinkers for generations. Given how important those essential workers have been during the pandemic, I see this as a unique opportunity to re-think how we value the work done by carers, teachers, cleaners and other workers in the foundational economy, because their work is critically important to our way of life.

Feminist economists characterise the way capitalist economies value work as the ‘sexual division of labour’: that is, men’s work is seen as productive, while women’s work is reproductive — that is, it is concerned with the care of children and other adults, the maintenance of households, the provision of food. Much of this reproductive work remains unpaid, and still occurs in the home, but, as women have entered the paid labour force in greater numbers over the last half century, an increasing amount of previously unpaid domestic work has been outsourced to paid workers, such as cleaners, early childhood education and care workers, aged care workers, disability care workers, and those engaged in food production and delivery.

This work was once the domain of the home. It was, essentially, women’s work and, in our capitalist market economy, it is too often dismissed as unskilled, uninspiring and unworthy of investment. Yet there is a strong case to be made for investing in this foundational work in the way that governments have traditionally invested in more high-profile, male dominated industries. Lifting wages and conditions in these jobs can narrow the gender pay gap, even the load of unpaid work between men and women, increase social cohesion and community wellbeing, address loneliness, and increase economic growth.

It’s widely known that women retire with about 47% less super than men — and yet, governments continue to ignore the realities of women’s financial insecurity when designing economic policy. Why do you think that is?

There simply still are not enough women occupying the senior decision-making roles in public policy, whether that be in the central agencies of the public service (IE: Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and Finance) or as cabinet ministers. The most unintentionally hilarious, and simultaneously enraging, example of that recently is when the Prime Minister announced that, as part of the early COVID restrictions, hairdressers would be allowed to open but only for 30 minute appointments. It’s clear there were no women in the room when that decision was made!

Beyond that, though, our economic system is structurally biased against women. The measure of growth we use to track economic performance is the Gross Domestic Product; when it was created 90 years ago, a decision was taken by the two men in charge of the project to exclude the value of women’s unpaid domestic labour in the measurement, even though a young female researcher on their team, Phyllis Deane, had argued for its inclusion. Given that unpaid work is roughly equivalent to half of GDP in most developed economies, this badly skews how we measure what we value. The superannuation gender gap is another great example — our super system was designed around the model of a full-time worker who works for 40 years without taking time out of the workforce. That’s a traditional male model of work, and so the system doesn’t account for women’s realities, in which they take years out to raise children and care for other adults, and then work part-time to fit in their domestic responsibilities.

As long as most of our leaders are men, and we don’t challenge the systemic bias in our economic systems, economic and social policy will continue to entrench male advantage.

How can policymakers apply a gender lens to their economic decisions? What questions should they be asking themselves?

This is something I and other feminists and female economists have been agitating for, for a long time! Australia once led the world in gender-responsive budgeting, but we’ve fallen badly behind in recent years. Applying a gender lens to social and economic policy decisions really requires policy makers to have a deep understanding of the structural division of paid and unpaid labour, the gender segregation in our labour market, the way that biology determines women’s opportunities within a patriarchal economic system, and the resulting differential impact of decisions on women’s opportunities compared to men’s.

To build that understanding, we need an explicit commitment and a set of metrics that must be applied to any significant social and economic policy decision — a gender impact statement for every cabinet submission, much as governments currently produce competition impact statements or regional impact statements. We also need to track and measure our progress towards gender equality, and publish an annual scorecard to publicise outcomes. This is something we called for in Per Capita’s recent report, Measure for Measure: Gender Equality in Australia, and have been advocating to both sides of politics over recent months.

You write in your chapter that emerging from COVID-19 provides an opportunity to redesign our economy and create a new society. What values should we prioritise for the next era of human civilisation?

Care. Care for one another, for our communities, for the land on which we live. We must move beyond the obsession with productivity and material wealth, important though they are for our standard of living, and pay attention to the things that bring us joy, comfort and peace. That means thinking about every decision or policy direction in terms of ‘Will this make people’s lives better? Will it give us more time to spend with our families, more time to do the things that bring us joy? Will it make us healthier and happier? Will it foster bonds of social cohesion and peace within our communities? Will it protect our ecology, reduce our footprint on the earth, care for the environment that supports human life?’. These must be the fundamental questions to guide us as we rebuild from this pandemic and the resulting economic collapse — if we don’t reconstruct our thinking to promote equality, wellbeing and sustainability, we will be leaving our children a much poorer, nastier and more inhospitable world than the one we have enjoyed.

Can you share any feminist authors, books, podcasts recommendations with us?

So many! De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, obviously — I devoured this as a 15 year old and it has guided my thinking ever since. Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lord, Susan Faludi, Roxanne Gay, Kate Millett, Angela Davis, Margaret Atwood, Betty Friedan, Marilyn Waring, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mary Beard, Joumana Haddad, Toni Morrison, Aileen Morton-Robinson.

Two books by younger writers I’ve read recently and loved: non-fiction — The Sex Factor: How Women Made The West Rich, by Victoria Bateman; and fiction —Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo.

I don’t get a lot of time for podcasts, but I’ve been enjoying Julia Gillard’s foray into the genre with ‘A Podcast of One’s Own.’

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