Unpaid Work: The Covert Nuisance for 21st Century Women

Continuing our IWD 2023 series, Maham Saleem analyses the way in which the burden of unpaid labour falls heaviest on women.

Conversations on gender disparity in work often center around the gender pay gap, sexual harassment in the workplace, and a lack of female senior leadership. After Hollywood’s 2017 #MeToo movement, there were fast-moving conversations about the systemic issues faced by women across all sectors of society. HR teams across the country scrambled to reform hiring  practices, the UK government introduced mandatory gender pay-gap reporting, and the Labour party temporarily introduced their contentious all-women shortlists. There was, it seemed, an acknowledged concern about these issues and a genuine will to address them. 

However, unlike the issues women face in the workplace, gender disparity in unpaid household work seems much more mundane and low-stakes. In both the UK and the developing world, it has been accepted as an unchangeable, almost integral part of the social contract. And policymakers lack the appetite or excitement to incentivise change in this area. After all, what can governments really do to address such a cultural issue, short of public statements asking men to do more laundry?

Let’s begin at the core of the problem - what is unpaid household work and why does it present an issue for women? Unpaid domestic or household work is any work done for free for members of the household; it includes care work (caring for a child, elderly parent, or disabled family member) and housework (cooking, cleaning, and in some countries fetching water & fuel). In both developed and developing countries, women do more housework and care work than men. The charity ActionAid estimates that globally, women end up doing three times more unpaid work than men - as a result spending four additional years working over their lifetime. 

In developing countries, women having to spend more time doing unpaid household work results in a large proportion of them being excluded from entering or rejoining the workforce, making it both a cultural and an economic issue.

But the problem also exists in the first world. A 2021 Household Income and Labour dynamics survey in Australia found that women did 21 hours more unpaid household work a week than men. Often on top of paid jobs, doing the lion’s share of household work can become a double burden on women, particularly women from lower-income households who cannot afford to give up paid work. It has become the norm for women to work full-time whilst continuing to do the majority of household work, meaning policymakers don’t see it as a systemic labour issue because it doesn’t massively affect participation in the workforce. Naturally, doing dozens of hours of unpaid work on top of a paying job affects mental and physical wellbeing, exacerbating the inequality in health and welfare between high-income and low-income women. 

Let’s look at how unpaid work hours play out in the UK. Unpaid work (including childcare, housework, and voluntary work) isn’t counted towards GDP, however in 2002, the Office for National Statistics started measuring the Household Satellite Account. The methodology behind it essentially just measures the hours of unpaid work, and values it at the equivalent market wage rate for each activity - in 2016, the value of the UK’s unpaid household service work was estimated to be a staggering £1.24 trillion. 

Of course, it’s not methodologically (or morally) easy to quantify the monetary value of raising one’s own child or looking after a disabled relative. But I can’t help but wonder whether if there was an economic value attached to these activities, that the ‘double burden’ on working women might not seem such an inconsequential issue. Last year, research by the thinktank Centre for Progressive Policy found that every year women in the UK provide 23.2bn hours of unpaid childcare care worth an estimated £382bn, while men provide 9.7bn of unpaid childcare. 

The disparity between genders in the UK is of course smaller than in most of the developing world and the gap in housework is smaller than the gap in care work, but the difference is still stark. Women do more housework than men in 93% of British households, even when both parties have full time jobs. Despite a rising number of women becoming the higher earners, 45% of female breadwinners do more housework compared to only 12% of male breadwinners. Women’s share of household work decreased during the first Covid-19 lockdown from 65% to 60%, but increased again once restrictions were eased.

So given this unmoving gender disparity exists, what can policymakers do to make us into a more egalitarian society? Children must be raised and housework must be done, and no amount of innovation or technological advancements will change this. There are some easier-said-than-done solutions - increased provision of childcare is one that the Labour Party seem to be capitalising on. More free childcare hours and longer school days would allow women to return to work and reduce the double burden, but both of these initiatives require large injections of government funding. Flexible working hours and hybrid working environments also make working easier for women(particularly those with children).

The difficult part lies in challenging gender norms - in particular, the expectation that housework should by default be done by women - when there are many ostensibly more pressing issues to be dealt with. This will ultimately require a cultural shift (fewer laundry detergent adverts targeted solely at women would help). But attitudes already seem to be shifting. Last year, a YouGov poll found that couples in the 18-24 year age group were most likely to split household chores equally. Slow progress is still progress. But in order to facilitate this progress, governments around the world should recognise gender disparity in unpaid work as a legitimate issue.

Maham is a member of the Labour Party and Young Fabians. She tweets about pop culture and hating the government at @mahamsaleeem and she blogs about arbitrary topics here Maham Saleem – Medium.

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

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