Stay-at-home women: a comparative rarity

From time to time, suggestions have been made that stay-at-home women should be compensated for their unpaid work.

Stay-at-home women in Malta are becoming a comparative rarity. It looks like in 2022 there were 40,190 of them, compared to some 119,000 who were employed. There is still a gap of 14.2 percentage points between male and female employment, but that can be expected to decline further as women discover the freedom they gain when in employment. If women were to participate in employment as much as men, then the current gap would be halved to 21,400.

Of course, that does not imply that women who stay at home do not work; they simply work without being paid. Housework is tough. Being a stay-at-home parent or carer comes with many rewards but can be physically, emotionally and intellectually draining, not to mention financially.

Whether a woman is a stay-at-home person or employed, she often has the job of shopping for groceries and other necessities, cooking for the family, keeping the home clean, looking after the children during their formative years, and a host of other tasks. Though one increasingly hears of men who do the right thing and share these chores with their wife or partner, there is still a worrying number of them who persist in lording it over.

Unfortunately, stay-at-home women simply do not exist for the purpose of counting a country’s GDP. A court recently valued a housewife’s work at €28,000 when awarding damages after doctors left a surgical gauze inside her abdomen 10 years ago. In noting that the woman was a housewife, so there was no loss of employment, the Court pegged the compensation with the minimum wage. This, in itself, is an aberration of estimates of the value of work, whether one is employed or not.

Economist Kirsten Cutajar Miller has worked out an estimate based on the amount of time men and women spend on housework (employed women 2.3 hours daily, men 1.6 hours). Using the average wage rate for employed women and men for Malta, (€1,747 for women and €1,905 for men) she estimated that the monthly average value of housework is €753 for women and €571 for men.

From time to time, suggestions have been made that housewives should be compensated for their unpaid work. As long ago as three decades ago, then Archbishop Joseph Mercieca had thrown his weight behind this idea. Just eight years ago, Fr Charles Attard, director of the Church’s marriage preparation unit, recommended the idea to the Parliamentary Committee for Family Affairs and the committee took it on board.

Labour-market experts, however, shot down the idea as they argued that it would discourage women from entering the labour market, where they were needed. Looking at it from the economic viewpoint, they were right. But should we look again at the idea, now that the female participation rate has increased so much? Considering that there is such a shortage of carers to look after the aged and disabled, could it make sense to pay stay-at-home housewives and carers?

Of course, paying 40,000 women to remain at home, rather than go out to work, would be prohibitively expensive. I estimate it would cost at least €444 million. In any case, it would be a significant disincentive to them joining the labour force. But that does not mean that a certain element of compensation couldn’t be paid to all women who, for example, have children below the age of 20 or old-age people above the age of 70 living with them.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio

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