Why do mums do all the volunteering at schools?

The distinction between 'accidental' single parenthood and choice leaves women between a rock and a hard place.

The distinction between 'accidental' single parenthood and choice leaves women between a rock and a hard place. Photo: Stocksy

When a friend decided to shell out $50,000 in private school fees for two of her children, the last thing she expected was the school to turn around and ask her to supply free labour.

As part of the enrolment paperwork, she was asked to specify which school committee she would volunteer for. Thinking it was voluntary - as the word suggests - she sent back all the papers, except the one relating to volunteering.

The next thing, the school was on the phone asking her to complete and return ALL the forms.

The expectation that mothers will provide free labour for school and other kid-related organisations and events extends well beyond the private school set. 

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Another friend is involved in organising the fete at the local public primary school. It's the equivalent of a fulltime job.

"I work when the kids are at school and then work when they go to bed and set the alarm and get another hour or more in the morning before everyone else is awake. But I'm just one and there's another four people doing that who also work," my friend says.

I've done my share of mummy volunteering too. As president of my daughter's childcare centre, I had to deal with government regulations, legal liabilities, hiring and managing staff, dealing with parent complaints, venue management, fundraising and lobbying my local MPs for government funding.

I was effectively running a small business with nothing to show for it except for some warm and fuzzy feelings. But warm and fuzzies don't pay mortgages. Nor do they increase your super or help you to build a CV or give you financial independence.

There's a tremendous and often unspoken opportunity cost to mothers who volunteer. While we're devoting countless invisible and unpaid hours to volunteering, we're not doing things that will deliver real material benefits and financial security.

We're also not investing in education or other return-to-work strategies that will lead to better career prospects. And we're not prioritising leisure time, which is such a rare commodity for mothers but critical to mental health.

Let's not pretend that this expectation to provide free labour is not gendered. Schools often schedule meetings for volunteer committees in the middle of the day when most fathers are doing paid work.

Clearly the expectation is that committees will be formed by stay-at-home mothers and mothers working part-time who can juggle their work schedules - two of the most financially and time-poor groups in our society.

To be fair, some men do volunteer at school and community fundraising events. But even here there's a distinct difference, as men often take more visible and celebrated jobs.

How many times have you been to a quiz night that was hosted by a mum? It's often men who are standing front and centre at the events, either working the crowd behind a microphone or flipping sausages. It's amazing how much praise a man gets for using a pair of tongs for an hour. Sure, not all heroes wear capes, but this is ridiculous.

Part of the reason everyone gushes when men volunteer is because we don't expect men to work for free. Men's time is considered valuable so when they donate some of it, it's a big deal.

Women, on the other hand, aren't just expected to volunteer, they're supposed to be fulfilled by it. And if, like most of the dads, you'd prefer to be doing something else with your time, then you're selfish and not community-minded. 

If you're really a loving and devoted mother, then selflessly helping your children and the community should be a joy and a privilege.

This is the unpalatable underside of volunteering. We live in a society where money is the only currency of value for people's time and skills, yet mothers are expected to provide their time and skills for little more than a pat on the back.

It's this attitude that keeps women silent and compliant. We smile as we devalue our time and skills and put our own needs last.

If schools and community groups can only operate off the backs of women's unpaid and unrecognised labour, then the model is broken. 

Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author.