Forget blokes with shovels, shouldn’t stimulus go to nurses and teachers? | Peter Lewis

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Workers who guide our kids into the world and care for us when we are ill are still not fully valued. This must change

There’s a direct line that runs from the harassment allegations against a retired high court judge and the emergency ward of the local hospital that bears scrutiny.

It starts with an elite profession charged with enforcing the law, where women routinely feel compelled to endure the unwanted attentions of powerful men, and wends its way through the economy and our broader society by devaluing the caring professions.

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World news | The Guardian

There’s a direct line that runs from the harassment allegations against a retired high court judge and the emergency ward of the local hospital that bears scrutiny.

It starts with an elite profession charged with enforcing the law, where women routinely feel compelled to endure the unwanted attentions of powerful men, and wends its way through the economy and our broader society by devaluing the caring professions.

It’s a thread that seems invisible to half the population but is glaringly obvious to the other. As such it threatens to trip and entangle those who can’t see it while having the potential to weave something transformative for those who do.

And like so much of our world in the context of the pandemic, we may be at a moment of recalibration. Because results in this week’s Guardian Essential report suggest the community is ready to start acknowledging the value of work in professions where women dominate.

After experiencing up close and personal the work of teachers and seeing the way nurses were deployed to the frontline of the health crisis, there is strong support – across the partisan divide – for increasing the wages for these professionals.

Do you think the following workers are not paid enough, paid about right, or paid too much for the work they do?

In stark contrast, next to no one believes that lawyers and bankers need additional largesse. Indeed, they believe their contribution to society is overvalued.

These findings are telling as we ponder pandemic economics, which some have dubbed the “pink recession” as the sting in the shutdown hits the tourism, hospitality, service and retails sectors, where women are disproportionately represented.

Yet the government’s initial response to stimulating the economy has tilted to the blokes with home renovations and “shovel-ready” construction, risking further skewing the gender impact of the slowdown.

An alternative government approach would be to invest into the caring professions, spending not just to create secure employment but to fill pre-existing gaps in the labour market. Even before the pandemic there were serious shortages in aged care and disability care, with the shortage filled by visa workers.

Directly employing more caring workers – and, critically, paying them more – would generate every bit as much stimulus as a tunnel or a new deck. Indeed, rather than keeping someone employed for the life of the project, they would be employing someone for the project of improving life.

Take early learning. We know that higher trained, higher skilled workers will grow curious little learners who will become thriving adults, returning a 200% dividend on the two-year investment. In a bear market that’s some rate of return.

We also know that the value proposition driving the NDIS is to support people with a disability and adds to the nation’s productivity, supporting them into the workforce. Mandating investment behind a skilled workforce would not only create jobs now, it would deliver on this promise.

It all comes down to recognising the value of human connection, not just the mechanics, but the emotional skills, the creativity, the attributes traditionally associated with women’s work. Laid out in these terms, it appears a no-brainer.

But there’s a complication: when it comes to gender equality, there are two differing views that appear in stark relief in another series of questions in this week’s report.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about gender equality in Australia?

While there is strong majority support for the idea that men and women in the same position should receive equal pay, attitudes cleave on the proposition of whether gender equality has been achieved, with a 20-point gap between men and women. A similar split holds in attitudes in the question of whether the idea of gender equality has gone far enough. Hold the presses, blokes don’t see gender inequality! But that’s not my point.

These results illustrate how the question of gender can lock in a status quo that threatens to nobble a more rational response to the economic crisis. People see what they experience and, absent an influx of blokes into the caring profession, basing a wage recalibration on purely gender arguments will meet an inevitable backlash.

Which brings me back to the judiciary and its allegedly handsy patriarchs. Beyond the obvious criminality, this behaviour shows how an entire industry can regard young female workers as less than fully human. And while, of course, this is about gender, it’s also about economic power.

It’s about devaluing humanity, the same way as workers who guide our kids into the world and care for us while ill and see us through our final years are not fully valued. They are defined by their tasks, as if there is no greater economic benefit derived from their labours.

What I am clumsily trying to say is this: I don’t think we get to properly value caring work by pursuing the issue purely through a gender lens. The easiest way to divide working people is to get them lined up against each other along arbitrary lines, when the real battle is the economic system that turns a blind eye to their experience and contribution.

Recognising that those working in hospitals and schools and nursing homes and early learning centres are delivering a value surplus to their employers and the community transforms the issue from one of gender to one of class.

And only from here can a hard-headed revaluing of care begin in earnest.

Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential Media


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