Woman in a dark business suit leaving her house to go do some unpaid work.
Image: © Monkey Business/Stock.adobe.com

Women do an incredible amount of the world’s unpaid work

8 Mar 2019

Women carry the bulk of the world’s unpaid work despite increased participation in the paid labour market.

Workplace gender equality is in a liminal space in which both huge inroads have been made and huge work has still yet to be done, and this is especially the case when it comes to the unpaid work that women do.

Unpaid work can manifest in a variety of ways both during and outside of working hours, but most commonly in the latter. From cooking and cleaning to childcare, women carry out at least two-and-a-half times more unpaid housework than men. Women do 75pc of the world’s unpaid care, often leaving the workforce entirely to care for children or ill relatives, to the detriment of both their careers and to social security.

Taking up the mantle of this work, which is sometimes not even properly acknowledged as work at all, can often take from the time that women could spend doing actual paid work. So, while women spend on average more minutes per day working than men, overall they don’t get compensated for more than half of it.

While the division of unpaid labour has crawled closer and closer to parity in the past few years, there is still a discrepancy. This discrepancy hasn’t let up despite women taking on a larger role in the paid workforce. Some researchers on the topic have gone so far as to say that women end up working a ‘double shift’ due to both the paid and unpaid burdens they shoulder.

Invisible labour

Even though this phenomenon has been documented and studied, there is still one sphere in which women’s unpaid work is still glaringly absent: the gross domestic product (GDP)

The term ‘GDP’ was introduced more than 80 years ago by British economists. It was designed to provide a comprehensive picture of an entire national economy. The economists, James Meade and Richard Stone, decided to focus on everything that was bought and sold to paint their picture.

Yet Phyllis Deane, a woman hired by Meade and Stone to apply the formula to British colonies, immediately recognised a huge problem: the GDP totally excluded a huge amount of economic activity by discounting unpaid work. She argued that it was “illogical” to ignore this entire slice of the economic ecosystem and contended that the work is often ignored because it is “women’s work”. Her protestations were ignored.

Recently, contemporary scholarship has come to recognise that the picture painted by the GDP is an incomplete one. Yet, as it stands, there is still no official metric for assessing the value of women’s unpaid work.

Volunteering in the workplace

Unpaid labour is not necessarily confined to outside of the workplace either. Even within the context of paid labour, women will often, for various reasons, end up taking on thankless volunteer tasks.

A group of economists from various higher education institutions around the globe completed a study into who is more likely to take up ‘non-promotable tasks’ in the workplace. These tasks, the researchers explain, “benefit the organisation but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement”.

They can include everything from organising a holiday party to serving on low-ranking committees. They are not particularly skilled tasks, nor do they produce more impact. Yet the research found that women were 48pc more likely to volunteer than their male counterparts.

Women were not found to be necessarily more drawn to these tasks or in any way more essentially geared towards them. When women are in same-sex groups, they are no more likely to volunteer than men. The large discrepancy only exists in mixed-gender groups. Researchers concluded that the real driver was “a shared understanding or expectation that women would volunteer more than men”.

What can be done?

It’s overly simplistic to ask women to simple refuse to do a lot of the aforementioned unpaid work. This work is necessary. There would be negative repercussions if it wasn’t done both in the office and home alike.

So, placing the burden on women to put up a resistance boxes them into a position where they’re likely to be perceived as being obstreperous, lazy or not a team player.

Structural changes need to be made to how this work is recognised, acknowledged, compensated and distributed. It can’t fall on women to try to change the world they live in. This world has to pull its weight.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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