16 Dec 2018

Marilyn Waring: still counting the value of women's unpaid work

From Sunday Morning, 9:37 am on 16 December 2018

The government's approach to welfare and work continues to ignore the largest labour market in every economy in the world, former National MP and groundbreaking feminist economist Dr Marilyn Waring's new book warns. 

Marilyn Waring

Marilyn Waring Photo: Supplied

The former National MP for Raglan and Waipa was in Parliament for nine years from 1975, was National's only woman MP in 1978 and had an extraordinary political career, arguably instrumental in the collapse of the Muldoon government.

She then turned her back on it all and entered the world of academia in 1985, and published the ground-breaking book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth

The book explained through in-depth economic analysis, how the success of the global economy rests on women's unpaid work and on the environment – yet both were systematically ignored and undervalued by conventional economic measures. 

It became extremely influential and widely cited as a founding treatise on feminist economics, with John Kenneth Galbraith, Gloria Steinem and David Suzuki counted among the fans. 

Counting for nothing

This year marks 30 years since the release of Counting for Nothing

"I thought I was writing a cathartic little book to help me understand all these signs of invisibility in the central data that governed our economic policy making," Waring says. 

She says she wept when she came across the passage - from the 1953 documents underpinning the stats for GDP - that casually dismissed all the unpaid labour, traditionally done by women, as 'of little or no importance'.

"And then the next paragraph - or very close to it - says ‘why is this left out?’ And the answer is ‘convenience’." 

Her book explains that exclusions from that key indicator of economy, GDP, included cleaning; maintenance of the home; preparing and serving meals; the care, training and instruction of children; care of sick and infirm people; breastfeeding. 

“An extremely strong gendered dimension, of course the environment is left out as well, except when it’s being exploited and marketed," she says. 

Dr Waring has long lamented the measures which fail to take this unpaid work into account, and says the continued imposition of OECD measurements on New Zealand are just another form of "imported colonisation". 

"They have common regulatory and legal provisions so they’re quite rigorous in the way in which they’re looking at this ... but they’re also completely different: we have a Tiriti partnership here, you can’t just import European ways of being." 

Still Counting

Waring says little has changed. 

No caption

Photo: Supplied

"When I was a parliamentarian, we all knew that the poorest households were ... the single-head households, headed by women. So, nothing’s changed in 40 years and it’s time that there was cognisance of this in the Budget." 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised that the next Budget will be a 'wellbeing budget' - measuring policies against both fiscal and a broader range of indicators.

However, in her new book Still Counting Dr Waring argues the government's planned 'Living Standards Framework' and a shift to a wellbeing approach doesn’t necessarily mean women’s work will be valued fairly.

"In fact, I felt quite despairing.

"The key reasons that they want to look at time use outside of market transactions is to discover if some people are working more than 55 hours a week. 

"And they want to know how much ‘leisure’ workers - meaning those in the market - are getting. There’s still no interest in this single largest sector." 

She says it's one of the ironies of 2018 that economists, facing changes to the way work is done, have all of a sudden got excited about non-GDP measures.

"And they realise ‘oh my goodness because I’m doing this at home, because I'm doing this where none of the assets that I’m using are being counted' - because intermediate consumption isn’t visible here - 'oh dear this work isn’t lodging as visible, we ought to do something about it'. 

"They’re still leaving out the largest sector of any nation’s economy anywhere. 

"Why anybody thinks you can make good economic policy while sustaining the invisibility of the key contributor to wellbeing is really beyond me. And that’s why I’ve lost patience ... It’s like 65 years of the old stranglehold of GDP." 

A measure of work

That largest sector she's talking about is, of course, unpaid labour. There have been previous attempts to measure it.  

"So, the 2016 information produced by the UK government statistician - who did this because he said he wanted to see a picture of the ‘whole economy’ - is that the unpaid work is the equivalent of all retail and manufacturing in the UK," Dr Waring says.

"In Australia - which, we have to understand has really different childcare provisions from New Zealand - the single largest sector in the Australian economy is childcare.

Marilyn Waring and Wallace Chapman

Marilyn Waring and Wallace Chapman Photo: RNZ

"The second-largest sector in the Australian economy is all the rest of unpaid work, and then banking and financial intermediation services and insurance - which is the largest market sector - comes in third. 

She also lays out a vision for what a new, genuinely transformative economic measure of time use would look like.

She says New Zealand's history holds an example of possibly the best-practice example of this. 

"They were a result of the very first coalition agreement - New Zealand First brought time use surveys to the table ... they were extraordinarily textured, they were diary-based, they over-sampled Māori so we would have some feedback on that, and they delivered the texture you need for really good policy making.

"One of the fears I have going forwards is that we’ll be told that a couple of questions in the general social survey are going to be plenty to give us time-use data. It’s not true, it’s not good enough, that still privileges the old paradigm." 

Snap election call, 1984: The nuclear moment

Dr Waring stamped many marks during her political career, the most famous of which was when she informed her leader - Prime Minister Robert Muldoon - that she would cross the floor and vote for Labour's nuclear-free legislation, at a time when National held a one-seat majority in government. 

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 Robert Muldoon Photo: Archives New Zealand from New Zealand [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

"I’d committed to Sue Wood and Barry Lay that my vote would stay with the government on confidence and supply but I could not sit in the caucus anymore, I just found it outrageous." 

That night she was invited to a late-night meeting. 

"I’d been invited to the whip’s office by Sue Wood to have a talk, because you know, I’d said ‘yeah I’m going to oppose this’.

"I walked into the room ostensibly thinking I was going to see Sue, and she says ‘you were ambushed’.

Muldoon had been drinking heavily. She agrees with the account that his opening salvo to her was ‘what the f--- do you think you’re doing now? You perverted little liar’.

"It was perfectly obvious when he came out with that, there was no reconciliation going to be going on here." 

She returned fire, saying ‘those words leave your lips again and I’ll sue the s--- out of you’. 

That of course sparked Muldoon's decision to call a snap election that night ... an ill-fated decision that led to the election of the Labour government by a landslide. 

She says however, that he had been looking for an excuse for it. 

“I baited a hook and he took it. He was looking for a reason to call an early election for ages, he was looking, looking, looking."

Robert Muldoon campaigning, 1981

 Robert Muldoon campaigning, 1981. Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage