Women’s Work: How Important is the Unpaid Component

The world of women’s work often comprises of a major share of activities that is seldom recognised and rewarded. Under certain familial structures, women perform unpaid work to contribute to family enterprises, which while accumulating profit, often excludes women from the shares. Additionally, women, especially in agrarian communities, often perform unpaid work in the field to grow food for own (household) consumption. A major component of unpaid work of women however, includes activities performed towards caring for children, sick and elderly as well as collecting water and wood for fuel, performing daily household chores, animal husbandry and caring for poultry, and community services.

According to rough estimates presented in the World Economic Forum 2019, across the world, without exception, women carry out threequarters of unpaid care work, or more than 75 per cent of the total hours provided. Women dedicate on average 3.2 times more time than men to unpaid care work. There is no country where women and men perform an equal share of unpaid care work. In South Asian countries especially, the numbers are starker. Women spent around 5-10 times more time on unpaid work compared to men. Such unequal sharing of an important component of the process of social reproduction clearly stems from the historical sexual division of labour and is shaped by the stringent social norms and patriarchal attitudes pervasive across the world – albeit to different degrees. Further, due to its invisible nature and the non-recognition accorded to such work, the allocation of unpaid work depends upon many factors; these include age, social class, presence of children and type of household structure, to name a few. Accordingly, the amount of time devoted to these unpaid tasks is overall smaller for those who remain the ‘bread-winners’ in the households or non-single heads of households, the very young, those that can purchase substitutes in the market and those with few or no children.

A large body of work establishing the importance of unpaid care work for women has also highlighted the vicious cycle of intergenerational impacts on girls in the family, its adverse impact on the uptake of education and skill development for young girls as well as limited socialisation restricting the intellectual development of women.2 The theoretical framing of this work in the literature has also highlighted that women’s unpaid activities towards reproducing and maintaining the socioeconomic structures, especially their efforts at maintaining a healthy source of labour supply in an economy through their unrelenting labour on care and household activities, often subsidises the role of the state.3 However, there remains limited evidence and analysis on highlighting the economic contributions and the impacts unpaid care work has on the lives of those who perform it and those who benefit from it.

Policy making across the world with a strong focus on privatizing education, health, and social services, without recognizing women’s role, has further undervalued and intensified women’s contribution in the domain of unpaid work.

The invisibility is often reflected in the statistical framework as the lack of estimates of unpaid care and household work in most official statistics on national labour force: it does not get counted and remains excluded from the Systems of National income Accounting (SNA) as it is not considered as activities performed against pay or profit. Despite being critical for the smooth functioning of the domestic and community life, it remains largely ignored by economic and social policies due to its absence from the statistical framework. And has the potential to limit the outcomes of even the most welfarist policies. Such approaches often get manifested in adverse outcomes for women in the macroeconomic indicators as the distribution of employment, income, assets and wealth. It also has its implications on women’s status in the labour force.

The discourses on the limiting aspects of the disproportionate share of women’s time spent on unpaid care and household work has barely led to any acknowledgement or efforts to reduce the same, especially in the context of developing countries. The situation is further aggravated in the case of women who experience socio-economic marginalization and subjugation. In poorer areas, both urban and rural, women typically work longer hours than men, spend even more time on such work, and have limited time available to engage in nonhousehold/ community-level activities.

The inability of macroeconomic frameworks to prioritise unpaid labour and measure its economic value impacts overall quality of life and development of individuals, economy and the overall society. There remains a stark absence of support mechanisms and social provisions, which can potentially recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid work. And while this applies to all forms of unpaid work performed by women, it is especially critical for the case of care work. Policy making across the world with a strong focus on privatizing education, health, and social services, without recognizing women’s role, has further undervalued and intensified women’s contribution in the domain of unpaid work. At a time when the global economic process acknowledges the value of closing gender gaps, it is imperative to begin not only by recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid work of women but also create enablers for performing these activities. Here, a major onus lies on the state to deliver through clear women-focused policies.

Sona Mitra is the Principal Economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), hosted by LEAD at Krea University, India.

Sona Mitra