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Recognising and valuing unpaid care

Sex Discrimination

Women’s economic security and unpaid care work

World Bank /Australian Government Side Event
Commission on the Status of Women, 58th Session,
UN Delegates Dining Room


In light of the priority theme for this year’s session of CSW - the ‘Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls’ - the focus for today’s discussion is on understanding the role of decent work and equal participation of women in employment, and the role of unpaid caring work predominantly undertaken by women – in addressing poverty alleviation and promoting economic growth.

The UN Secretary-General recognised in his 2013 report that inclusive economic growth, with decent employment and decent wages has proven to be a pre-requisite for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, particularly Goal 1 on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and Goal 3, promote gender equality and empower women.[1] Yet recognising and valuing unpaid caring work, which is central to the achievement of these goals, has not been sufficiently considered within the MDGs.

The unpaid care work, predominantly undertaken by women, remains largely un-recognised and under-valued in our communities, our workplaces and our economies. Owing to gender stereotypes related to family and work, such as ‘male breadwinners’, ‘women as carers/nurturers’, this generally means that women assume the bulk of the work.[2]

What we hope to discuss today is how these issues of women’s decent work and unpaid caring work can contribute to poverty alleviation and economic growth.

Women’s economic security

In Australia we are seeing the persistence of some longstanding gender gaps in women’s workforce participation, in pay equity and in retirement incomes and savings.

  • Women aged 20 – 74 have lower workforce participation rates than men[3], are more likely to be employed in insecure work[4] and are significantly more likely than men to work part time[5].
  • Women also undertake the majority of the unpaid caring work in Australia - whether that’s caring for children, or a family member or friend with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to older age[6].
  • The result of women moving in and out of the paid workforce due to their caring responsibilities and the inequalities in earnings,[7] which impact on women’s capacity to accumulate an adequate level of retirement savings, we are seeing a gender gap in retirement incomes and savings - the average superannuation payouts for women in Australia is just over half (57%) those of men.[8]

All of these facts mean that firstly, women’s rights to economic security are unrealised and secondly, women are less likely to be engaged as fully and productively as they can in the workforce – and when you have over 50% of your country’s population who aren’t able to work to their capacity, that’s a massive productivity loss.

Unpaid caring work

We know that a significant contributor to the gender gap is the reduced workforce participation of women due to unpaid caring work they do for children, family and household members with disability, for those who are chronically ill or frail due to old age.

  • In 2009, 4.1 million employed people were carers of children or other family and household members[9], which is nearly two in five employees, and the large majority of these are women. In the 15-64 years age group 72.5 per cent of primary carers were women.[10]

One of the most critical levers for addressing the super gender gap is recognising and valuing the unpaid caring work, which is undertaken predominantly by women.

Investing in care

In 2013 I launched the results of some research the Australian Human Rights Commission undertook in conjunction with the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at the University of NSW. Titled Investing in care,[11] the research examined how best to recognise and value unpaid caring work.

An important finding from the report is that unpaid carers have significantly lower rates of workforce participation and are more likely to work in part-time and casual jobs.

  • Sixty-six per cent of employed women with children aged under six years worked part-time compared to just seven per cent of employed men with children of the same age.[12]
  • Less than 23 per cent of female primary carers of people with disability, illness or frailty participate in full-time employment at any point across all age groups, compared with 52 per cent of men.[13]

The fact is that caring is not economically valued. I’m talking about the fact that the superannuation, taxation and employment systems financially disadvantage people who care.

It’s time we considered the impost of care on the people who provide it. Why should women be rewarded for a lifetime of care with having to live out their retirement years in poverty?

Investing in care, which I launched in 2013 identified a number of options for reform for adoption in Australia to reform the current system of retirement income and savings, including the age pension and superannuation, to account for the inequity of retirement incomes and savings that leaves many women in poverty in older age, especially women who are or have been unpaid carers.
The report suggests 11 options for policy reform drawn from research and analysis of a range of mechanisms and models used to value unpaid caring work not just in Australia and another 24 countries around the world.

The options for reform cover areas including:

  • strengthening and further developing legislation,
  • flexible work arrangements,
  • income support,
  • leave arrangements,
  • resourcing of services,
  • workplace initiatives to evolve workplace culture; and
  • the retirement incomes and savings system.

What is clear is that there is no one policy solution but rather a range of reforms that are needed. Let me spend a couple of minutes talking about them.

Legislative reform

One option for reform is legislative reform. Carers have the lowest collective wellbeing of any group in Australian society. The introduction of the federal Carer Recognition Act in 2010 was a first step to formally recognising the value of care, but it does not confer any rights on those who care. The equivalent Act in the UK enables carers to receive an assessment of their carer needs, encouraging local authorities to support them by providing appropriate services. One option for reform would be to follow this UK model.

Caring credits

Secondly, the big option for reform I would like to share today canvasses the options around reform of the superannuation and taxation system – and the option is, ‘caring credits.

Many countries with social insurance-based public pension schemes have introduced the means of crediting a person’s public pension scheme while they are out of the workforce providing care. These are called carer credits. Some of the countries which have caring credit systems operating include Sweden, Canada, Finland and the UK.

In the UK, the carer credits for parents have recently been extended to grandparents who provide care for a grandchild under 12 for a minimum number of hours per week while their parents work. Some countries are extending them beyond carer of children to all carers.

Some carer credit schemes (e.g. Germany) continue to provide carer credits when individuals return to work part-time. These credits can ‘top up’ an individual’s pension contributions to the value of what they would be if the individual was working full-time.

Some countries (Sweden, France, Poland) are beginning to include carer credits in their private or occupational pension schemes. In these cases, the state either contributes to a person’s private pension account while they are out of work after the birth of a child or takes over the employer contribution during certain periods of workforce absence.

The international literature reveals that these are an effective mechanism for encouraging women’s attachment to the workforce while continuing to provide care. This helps to alleviate poverty in the present (through additional income) and in the future (through improving retirement income).

While these credits operate primarily in public pension schemes, their usefulness as a measure for recognising periods of caring in the retirement income system make them an important mechanism to consider in the context of Australia’s superannuation system.

One area that such a system has been considered in Australia is to include a superannuation component onto the paid parental leave pay. But women undertake unpaid caring work not only for children, but also for family and household members with disability, for those who are chronically ill or frail due to old age. So we need to consider whether caring credits could be payable across all forms of unpaid caring work.

The Commission has recommended that the Productivity Commission conduct an inquiry into mechanisms for valuing unpaid caring work including caring credits – to model and cost how such a mechanism could be successfully implemented here in Australia.

Role of employers

Thirdly, I note that in addition to the role of governments there is a role here for employers and business as well. A critical component of the report was the production of a toolkit for employers that provides practical examples of mechanisms that workplaces can use to support unpaid carers and help them to meet their caring responsibilities. Its titled Supporting carers in the workplace: A toolkit and I have several copies with me here today.

What has been encouraging to see is the innovation and commitment of business to addressing this issue.

Let me give you an example.

In 2013, Rice Warner introduced a suite of measures to address the gender gap in retirement income and savings. What I particularly appreciated about this package of measures was that it included several different initiatives. Not only did they introduce payment to female employees of an additional 2% superannuation contribution while employed at Rice Warner, they are also providing 18 weeks’ maternity leave at full pay, a superannuation contribution for women employees on maternity leave, for up to 12 months and long service leave accrual through maternity leave, as well as flexible working arrangements upon returning to work. Finally they are also providing an education programme to build awareness of the unique challenges women face in saving for retirement.

My hope is that we will start to see such strategies, many of which are canvassed in our Toolkit, being initiated across the corporate and non-corporate sectors.

Addressing stereotypes

Finally one of the biggest hurdles in the unpaid caring debate in Australia is the stigma associated with caring itself. And it can be addressed.

We need to address the gender role stereotypes and social norms that have become associated with unpaid caring and workforce participation. We need to challenge the ‘ideal worker’ model of a person (usually a man) who is unencumbered by caring responsibilities. We need to create a new ‘normal’ where women and men equally share the responsibility for unpaid care.

This can be achieved by encouraging men to be involved in caring right from the start.


So can I leave you with this thought - now is the time for bold and innovative thinking, thoughtful analysis and collective commitment, so that in the near future, no woman – no-one - will retire in poverty because they chose to care.

To properly recognise and value unpaid caring work:

  • Prohibit discrimination on the ground of family responsibilities and carer responsibilities in anti-discrimination legislation.
  • Create options for legally enforceable obligations to a carer assessment,
  • Include mechanisms in parental leave schemes that encourage the equal take-up of parental leave in couples (eg. time-bonus of two weeks additional payment ))
  • Consider option to provide employees with a legislated right to a job-protected unpaid employment break of up to 12 months, across the lifecourse, to provide care for a person with disability or illness or frailty due to age or for palliative care.
  • Provide care services and supports that take into account the needs of working women and men, including accessible, affordable, flexible, quality early childhood education and care.
  • Employers should consider implementing mechanisms to support unpaid carers in the workplace.
  • Consider option to establish a system of ‘carer credits’ ie direct credits to the superannuation accounts of individuals with parental care responsibilities and carer responsibilities.
  • Collect regular gender and age dis-aggregated data on unpaid caring work, specifically through time-use surveys.
  • Include unpaid care work and its gendered impact in the assessment of the achievement of MDGs and in any goals, indicators and targets developed for the post-2015 development agenda.

Thank you

[1] UN Secretary-General, A life of dignity for all: accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals and advancing the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015: Report of the Secretary-General (2013), UN Doc A/62/208, para 34. At,d.aGc (viewed 26 February 2014)
[2] UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Unpaid care work and women's human rights, (2013) UN Doc A/68/293, p4. At (viewed 26 February 2014).
[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Gender Indicators (August 2013). At: (viewed 20 November 2013).
[4] Australian Council of Trade Unions, Lives on hold: unlocking the potential of Australia’s workforce: The report of the Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia (2012).
[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Gender Indicators, Australia (January 2013). At: (viewed 20 November 2013).
[6] Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) Investing in care: Recognising and valuing those who care, Volume 1 Research Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney.
[7] Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) Investing in care: Recognising and valuing those who care, Volume 1 Research Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney
[8] R Clare, Developments in the level and distribution of retirement savings, September 2011 (2011), p 10.
[9] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia 2009, Basic CURF, Version 3, CD-Rom (2009). Findings based on SPRC’s analysis of ABS CURF data.
[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia, Catalogue no. 4436.0 (2012), p 21, Table 8. At
(viewed 14 September 2012).
[11] Australian Human Rights Commission, Investing in care: Recognising and valuing those who care, (2013). At (15 September 2013).
[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Employment conditions’, Gender Indicators, Australia, Jul 2012, Catalogue, no. 4125.0 (2012). At (viewed 23 August 2012).
[13] Generated from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Survey of Disability, Ageing and Caring (2009).

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner