from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Unpaid Care Work: The Overlooked Barrier to Female Labor Force Participation

October 24, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This post is co-authored by Becky Allen, a research associate in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF David Lipton set the tone for the Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank this month when he made the economic case for promoting policies that benefit women’s economic advancement in his opening remarks. Drawing upon widely cited research, Lipton noted that women’s economic participation not only boosts GDP, but also contributes to sustainable growth and reduced income inequality.

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In a subsequent panel, Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, addressed a less documented issue: unpaid work. According to Shuler, “If all the unpaid jobs in the care economy had been paid, this would have added 13 million jobs to the U.S. economy alone.”

Globally, women do three times more of the world’s unpaid work than men. Economic policies that reduce and redistribute unpaid work could increase women’s labor force participation, promote sustained economic growth, and advance gender equality. According to the OECD, however, unpaid care work has been largely ignored by policy agendas around the world because of the difficulty in measuring the burden and benefits of unpaid care, in addition to its only recently recognized status as an issue worth studying.

Fortunately, new studies are emerging to add to the data and highlight the need for new and revised policies.

For example, data from the OECD suggests a negative correlation between time spent on unpaid care work and female labor force participation. 50 percent of women are employed or job hunting in countries where women devote an average of five hours to unpaid work, in contrast to 60 percent of women in countries where women perform three hours of unpaid work. In other words, when women have to spend less time on activities such as cooking, collecting firewood, and cleaning, their labor force participation increases. Seen this way, it is evident that unpaid care work is a deterrent to women’s economic advancement.

A recent Action Aid study estimated that women perform an average of four years’ more worth of work than men – or an extra month’s worth of work per year – in order to balance their commitments to both paid and unpaid care work. Without government policies to address the burden of unpaid care work falling largely on women, the report argues, countries will be unable to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – particularly in developing nations where the problem is most acute. Action Aid urges governments to improve formal labor opportunities for women by implementing policies that prevent gender-based violence; increasing girls’ access to education, health, and economic resources; enabling safe transportation for women; and facilitating women’s inclusion in decision-making processes.

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Such policies should target social benefits, including mandated paid parental leave policies – with a percentage specifically earmarked for fathers – and subsidized, quality childcare. Policies should also ensure economic reforms, such as the removal of tax burdens on secondary earners in a family, and legal reforms, such as restrictions on women’s mobility and access to credit.

Cultural attitudes that assign unpaid work exclusively to women will need to change as well for the view that unpaid work is women’s work to evolve. But the first steps to cultural transformation are recognizing and counting unpaid care work, and removing the structural barriers to women’s labor force participation.

On Tuesday, Gayle will host a roundtable featuring Shauna Olney, chief of the gender, equality and diversity branch (GED) of the International Labor Organization. Olney will expand upon the barriers to female labor force participation and the policies needed to facilitate women’s increased involvement in their own work force. Please check back here for audio from the event in the coming weeks.

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