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The Changing Gender Distribution of Paid and Unpaid Work in New Zealand - WP 05/07

6  Finding a new balance in paid and unpaid work

If New Zealand women, particularly mothers of young children, do keep increasing their rates of employment and/or hours of paid work, what are the likely implications for the overall balance of paid and unpaid work in our society? If greater gender equality is also a goal in New Zealand, what are possible models for achieving it in paid and unpaid work within households?

One model, which focuses on horizontal equity between women and men, is the “professionalisation” route where unpaid work can be contracted out and the focus of parents, particularly well-educated parents, can be primarily on paid work. Within this model, one option is low-income professionalisation (Freeman and Schettkat 2001). In Europe and the United States, relatively low-skilled immigrants from countries such as the Philippines, Turkey or Mexico are often among those who are employed by high-earning families to provide personalised family services. Individuals from these countries are over-represented in occupations such as nannies, gardeners, and house cleaners (Momsen 1999, Parreñas 2001). This pattern is more likely to occur in countries with higher levels of income inequality such as the United States and the United Kingdom. If immigration rules were changed in New Zealand, it could also occur in this country to a greater degree than already takes place. This could be a high productivity option as it is likely to represent a high level of specialisation across the whole of society.

At another extreme the Swedish model, which has high employment rates for women, has at its heart both horizontal and vertical equality. Successive Swedish governments have long had an interest in the workings of households and, as such, have not considered the family and household sphere, and greater gender equity within it, as entirely private. In Sweden, government policies such as universal entitlements to paid parental leave (including special, non-transferable “pappa” months to encourage fathers to take leave), along with an aim to provide universal, high-quality subsidised childcare, as well as support for relatively low working hours, have all assisted parents in achieving a very different work-life balance compared to many other countries (Ministry of Health and Social Affairs 1994). In New Zealand, unlike Sweden, there has been almost no official promotion to increase men’s share of childcare. For example, New Zealand fathers in opposite-sex couples have no independent right to take a period of paid parental leave (Father and Child Society 2004). As part of supporting men’s involvement in childcare, the Swedish Government appointed a Working Party on the Role of Men in 1983. This working party organised seminars, publications and projects (Ministry of Health and Social Affairs 1994). In 1992, another working group, called Fathers, Children and Working Life, replaced this. This had the task of analysing men’s use of parental benefits and the possible labour market factors preventing men from taking parental leave.

All the family support in Sweden, particularly out-of-home childcare and paid parental leave, has obviously been achieved at a considerable cost to taxpayers, particularly given that workers undertaking jobs such as childcare are relatively well paid. Critics of the system also point to the extreme levels of gender-based, occupational segregation. In addition, the more equal income distribution in Sweden, along with the dominant notion that “each person should take care of her/his own dirt” has, in the past, made it harder for middle-class families to privately employ domestic labour even if they wanted to (Nyberg 2000: 12). Detractors of the Swedish model also suggest that “new” fathers are easier to find in theory than in practice. Often this is supported by anecdotal stories that interpret shifts in fathers’ behaviour as self centred, such as Swedish men taking time off to look after their children when important soccer games are taking place (Adema 2004). There is an assumption in such stories, if in fact true, that fathers should not be enjoying themselves in the time they spend with children. However, some official data do point to change, even if not dramatic, in fathers’ behaviour. For example, in 1974 fathers took no days of paid parental leave. In contrast, in 1995 they took 10 percent of days and, by 2003, this had risen to 17 percent of days (Statistics Sweden 2004). An increase in childcare time by fathers may not necessarily translate into an increase in total unpaid work time if other aspects of household work, such as food preparation, are being marketised at the same time. Whatever the underlying cause, Swedish time use data would suggest that some shifts in the mix of unpaid work have taken place.[18]

Assuming that New Zealand individuals and households favour the on-going professionalisation of unpaid work, particularly housework, are there limits to such marketisation? Ironmonger (1996), using Australian data, notes that despite the professionalisation of unpaid work, there is still more unpaid than paid work undertaken in industrialised economies. This would suggest much scope for further shifts from unpaid to paid work. However, there is some debate about the impact of the professionalisation of unpaid work. For example, Hochschild (1983) discusses the “commercialisation of human feelings" in areas such as retailing and childcare. Hochschild suggests that workers, particularly female workers, are required to sell their emotional labour often at a low price. This results in a sense of subservience, which is not associated with other jobs, and also results in low incomes.

Aside from possible ethical and emotional issues, there may be other factors that limit professionalisation. Ironmonger argues that a main reason for the continuation of household production is that the final products are superior in terms of quality, time and location of delivery. For example, fast food may be of poorer quality nutritionally and lead to obesity. Weiss (1997) also notes that household production continues because of lowering costs of search (for goods and services), transaction costs and monitoring of the production and quality of goods and services.

The various models of paid and unpaid work suggest new balances between paid work, unpaid work and leisure and, if it is a goal, greater gender equality in each area, could, through a variety of tradeoffs, be achieved in a range of ways. One, which could be seen as a type of “South Seas” version of Sweden, could involve further increases in women’s participation in paid work; a reduction in men’s paid working hours; a further reduction in the childcare undertaken by women through both marketisation and an increase in that undertaken by men; and finally, through further outsourcing of housework, a reduction in housework time for both women and men. If also associated with productivity gains in paid work, this could move New Zealand closer to being a high-income, more gender-equal society while also allowing a high level of parental time investment in children. Whether such a model could actually evolve in New Zealand is, however, debatable. First it depends on business finding new ways of increasing productivity. It also depends on potentially significant changes in the preferences of New Zealanders in terms of paid and unpaid work. This, in itself, may partly depend on how much government support is given to achieving greater gender equality in both the home and the workplace. As yet, we still know very little about preferences and the potential barriers—cultural, biological and economic—which prevent people from fulfilling them. Preferred outcomes might be somewhat different from some idealised model of gender equality and work-life balance.


  • [18]While Swedish women still undertake more unpaid work than men (on average around 28 hours per week compared with nearly 20 for men), between 1990/1 and 2000/1, women reduced the time they spent on unpaid work.
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