Economic cost of devaluing ‘women’s work’ | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 17, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 17, 2019

Economic cost of devaluing ‘women’s work’

Kristalina Georgieva, Cristian Alonso, Era Dabla, and Kalpana Kochhar for IMFBlog

As much as half of the world’s work is unpaid.  And most of it is done by women.

This imbalance not only robs women of economic opportunities. It is  also costly to society in the form of lower productivity and forgone  economic growth. It follows that a fairer allocation of unpaid work  would not only benefit women, but would also lead to more efficient work  forces and stronger economies.

For these reasons, reducing gender imbalances in unpaid work is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Examples of unpaid work include cooking, cleaning, fetching food or  water, and caring for children and the elderly.  These tasks are not  counted as part of economic activity because they are difficult to  measure based on values in the marketplace. Yet their economic value is  substantial, with estimates ranging from 10 to 60 percent of GDP.

In our new study,  we find that unpaid work declines as economic development increases  particularly because there is less time spent on domestic chores. Social  institutions and values can constrain the redistribution of unpaid work  by preventing men from sharing the burden at home.

Overworked and underpaid

It’s no secret that women disproportionately shoulder the burden of  unpaid work. Less well understood is just how many more unpaid hours  women put in than men on a given day. Women do 4.4 hours of unpaid work  on average around the world and men only 1.7 hours.

There are large differences across countries.

In Norway, the gap is small, with women doing 3.7 hours of unpaid  work, while men contribute 3. On the other extreme, in Egypt, women do  5.4 hours per day of unpaid work and men only 35 minutes. In the US,  women do 3.8 hours of unpaid work and men do 2.4 hours.

By not fully engaging women, the economy is misallocating resources,  having women do low-productivity tasks at home instead of taking  advantage of their full potential in the marketplace. It also misses  exploiting the complementarity between women and men in the workplace.  The result is lower productivity and economic growth. This gender gap in  unpaid work is not just unfair. It is clearly inefficient.

Certainly, some unpaid work is done entirely by choice and the value  to society of raising children for societies cannot be disputed. But  more than 80 percent of unpaid work hours are devoted to domestic chores  aside from child and elder care.

Too often women end up shouldering those domestic chores because of  constraints imposed by cultural norms, lack of public services and  infrastructure, or absence of family-friendly policies.

Women may also choose to stay at home or work only part-time if the  wage in the market is too low and does not represent equal pay for equal  work.

Engines of liberation

Policies can help reduce and redistribute unpaid  work.  In developing economies, measures to improve water supply,  sanitation, electricity, and transportation are critical to free women  from low-productivity tasks.

UNICEF estimates that women spend 200 million hours per day worldwide simply fetching water. In India,  women spend more than an hour every day collecting firewood. Better  access to electricity and water and less expensive appliances helped  boost female labor force participation in Mexico and Brazil.  Expanding internet access to the entire population can help women take  advantage of the gig economy and flexible work arrangements.

Governments need to ensure access to education and health care for  women. Without proper human capital, women’s possibilities in the labor  market are very limited. According to UNESCO,  130 million school-age girls are not in school. It is not only a matter  of providing the services, but also guaranteeing their use.

Many families in Pakistan  choose not to send girls to school because of security concerns.  Enshrining women’s rights in law could help to reshape social  institutions and values that prevent access to education and healthcare.

Efficient and flexible labor markets help redistribute unpaid work.  Active labor market policies, like those in Switzerland, can facilitate  job matching. We find that flexible work arrangements are associated  with less female unpaid work and make for a better work-life balance.

All in the family

Family-friendly policies also help. Many Nordic countries invest  heavily in early childhood education and care, which allows for high  enrollment and fosters women’s ability to return to work after giving  birth.

Greater parity in maternal and parental leave policies can raise  female labor force participation by smoothing women’s return to work and  engaging fathers in care activities early on. Iceland’s parental leave  policy is a good example: it sets the length of leave at nine months and  earmarks three for each parent.

Reducing and redistributing unpaid work is an economic imperative.  Governments must take decisive actions, and the private sector must join  in to seize on the large potential gains.


Georgieva is the managing director of the IMF, Alonso is an economist in the IMF’s fiscal affairs department, Dabla-Norris is a division chief in the IMF’s fiscal affairs department, and Kochhar is director of the IMF’s human resources department.

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