Could we update the language please?

Paid parental leave is in the news at present, with Liberal party leader Tony Abbott promoting a scheme where parents with primary care-giving duties are given 26 weeks of paid leave at their current wage rate, funded by a new tax on the 3,200 largest businesses in Australia, in comparison to the Labor government plan for 18 weeks of paid parental leave at the minimum wage, funded through general taxation. (Remind again which party is supposed to be a friend to business?) There’s plenty of discussion about the proposals over at Larvatus Prodeo: Feminism conquers the Liberal party, Abbott’s parental leave non-policy, Unfairness and Abbott’s parental leave non-policy, Reaction to Abbott’s parental leave plan.

But check out the language in this article: It’s back to work after childbirth.

”Mothers returning to paid work in the first six months after childbirth is associated with casual employment, low incomes and changing employers in the 12 months prior to childbirth,” the research [conducted by the Producivity Commission] found.

WOMEN on low incomes are most likely to return to work shortly after the birth of a child because of financial concerns, research shows.

Most women take between six and 18 months off work to care for a new baby.

The first extract quotes the Productivity Commission’s research, but the other two are the journalist’s words. The implication of her words are that paid jobs are work, but staying at home caring for your baby is not work.

It’s an old old story, I know, that work done in the home primarily by women is not recognised as real work. Only work which results in cash-in-the-hand is real work.

I know that caring for a baby is hard, hard work. There have been many times in my working life when I have worked very, very hard, spending long hours in the office, or taking tasks home and staying up late at night to finish, even getting up in the middle of the night to work because my mind was racing and I could not sleep. I have not always worked like this; it is impossible to work at that level for more than a few months, maybe a year at most, without needing to take a break, or being forced into a break by the imminence of collapse. Among those stretches of hard work were the months that I spent caring for my new babies. And unlike paid work, there were no breaks. Caring for infants and small children is work.

Sure, it’s only language. But it’s language that has an impact, and leads to the devaluation of caring work, work that is mostly done by women.

Memo to journalists: refer to “paid work” as “employment”, or even as “paid work”. It’s a tiny language change, an easy change to make, and one that has the effect of valuing women’s work.


4 responses to “Could we update the language please?

  1. Yes, the language creates reality as well as reflecting it.

  2. I’m right with you Deborah.

  3. I share your frustration. I remember the extreme tiredness, and the seeming unendingness of it, of having a small baby. Absolutely much harder work than doing 60 – 80 hour weeks as I did when I was a student (studying, activism, employment combined), or more recently in paid work. And as you point out, in a paid work sense it usually only lasts a certain amount of time before it stops, or you can take a sick day.

    That said, there are people out there who structurally have to work ridiculous hours for money, e.g shift workers, health workers. I have no idea how they can do it week after week. Especially if they also have a small baby in the house!

  4. The journalists have used thoughtless shorthand and I agree it needs challenging. Completely agree. The only caveat in my thinking is that I’d not want caring for children reduced to narrow understand of work, or at least its value understood in only direct economic terms.