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Does gender inequality start in the home? The latest UN Women report says it does

The conversation around gender inequality often finds itself focusing on the workplace or social setting – women in leadership, gender pay gap, glass ceiling are phrases we now strongly associate with gender equality – all focused on fixing the problem in the workplace.

Yet a new UN Women’s flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World, highlights the home as the place where for many women, gender inequality can rear its ugly head and then have a flow-on effect on other factors of family life.

New data in the report shows despite women continuing to enter the workforce in large numbers, marriage and motherhood limit their participation rates, “and the income and benefits that come with it.”

Married women, especially those with children, have lower workforce participation rates. Just over half of married women aged 25-54 are in the workforce, compared to 96 per cent of married men. This no doubt is the outcome of the ‘father the breadwinner, mother the homemaker’ adage that still lingers within many cultures.

But even when women do provide equal income to their husbands, the family care and household management is still very much the woman’s domain.

“Evidence from developed countries suggests that even when women and men both work full-time and provide equal income, including instances when women earn more than their husbands, women tend to do more housework as if to ‘neutralize’ their ‘deviance’ from traditional gender roles.”

The report continues, “The gains in women’s earning capacity and breadwinning roles have not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in men’s contributions to unpaid care work. Research suggests that in contexts where women’s entrance into employment increases their overall workday, this often leaves them feeling worse off despite their increase in market income. Hence, while the male-breadwinner/female-carer model may be disappearing, a family model where both paid and unpaid care work are equally shared has yet to take its place.”

In layman terms? Even in families where mothers are earning just as much as fathers and are in the same full time employment, mums are still taking the brunt of the family and household care.

But let’s be clear. This is not a battle of the sexes discussion – if society is telling fathers that their place is in the office and not in the home, then this removes the opportunity for men to ‘share the care’, be involved in their children’s lives, and reap the many benefits that fulfilling work/life integration can bring. A fascinating new study feature in the New York Times found that men caring for their children “produces not only a strong bond but a neurochemical reward, inducing feelings of happiness, contentment and warmth.”

Beyond childcare arrangements someone – mum or dad needs to be at home which can have limitations on the carer parent’s career progression. Insufficient and unequal paid parental leave plays a big factor in this, and exasperates the existing struggle that modern families face to balance and share their home life with their professional.

One of the report’s key recommendations is that “paid parental leave, and State support for the care of children and older persons, must be considered in crafting comprehensive social protection systems that can help to sustain families”.

It’s crucial that we continue to gather more information on working families, so that we can implement policies that adequately support the changing family. If more women are entering the workforce but still taking on just as much care on the home front, then we need policies in place – best practice parental leave or return-to-work programs, for example – that enable more equal division of the work at home. When our homes become more gender equal, then maybe our societies and workplaces will too.

The first National Working Families Survey is being launched this week which aims to gather feedback from working parents and carers across Australia on how workplaces can be made more family-friendly and gender-equal when it comes to sharing the caring load. Have your say here.

Evidence in article taken from ‘Progress of the world’s women 2019–2020: Families in a changing world’, published June 2019.