Unpaid work is an important aspect of economic activity and well-being of individuals. Tasks such as caring for children, the elderly and household chores are indispensable for our daily lives. While unpaid work consumes a significant part of our day, it mostly falls outside the system of national accounts and is not counted as part [...]

Business Times

Unpaid work and gender equality: IMF


Unpaid work is an important aspect of economic activity and well-being of individuals. Tasks such as caring for children, the elderly and household chores are indispensable for our daily lives. While unpaid work consumes a significant part of our day, it mostly falls outside the system of national accounts and is not counted as part of GDP, according to a paper titled “Reducing and Redistributing Unpaid Work: Stronger Policies to Support Gender Equality” presented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

File picture of women cutting sugar cane.

Much unpaid care work is done entirely by choice, and no one can dispute the importance of raising and rearing a child for future economic growth. But too often women are forced to bear the burden of domestic chores, and time spent on unpaid work reflects constraints imposed by cultural norms, lack of public services and infrastructure, or family leave policies.

Reducing and redistributing unpaid work is a macro-critical issue. Constraints to female labour force participation due to an uneven burden of unpaid work can result in resource misallocation. When women do not fully exploit their productivity potential by remaining outside of the workforce to perform relatively low-productivity household tasks, economic growth may be lower than otherwise. A workforce with fewer women also implies lower gains from exploiting the complementarity between female and male labor (Ostry and others, 2019). In addition, even for women who do paid work, occupational downgrading is common as women choose jobs at a lower skill level or engage in part-time work to balance paid and care work (Connolly and Gregory, 2007; Garnero and others, 2013). Women’s higher prevalence in part-time work arrangements is one of the key drivers of observed gender wage gaps, creating a feedback loop for gender inequality in unpaid work (Blau and Kahn, 2017). Recognising the gender inequality in unpaid work—the proportion of time spent on unpaid work disaggregated by gender—is one of the key indicators under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help boost female labor force participation.

In this paper, the IMF focuses on unpaid work from the perspective of gender inequality. It explores drivers of unpaid work around the world and examines recent trends in advanced economies using evidence from time use surveys. It said:

Richer economies

“On average, women do more than two more hours of unpaid work per day than men. We find that as countries get richer, the hours people spend on unpaid work fall, particularly in domestic chores. Richer economies can afford “engines of liberation”. In developing economies, unpaid work is often linked to subsistence requirements—providing food, shelter and caring for family members in a very labor-intensive fashion. As economies develop, improved household technologies, and the introduction of labour-saving consumer durable goods results in less time spent on domestic chores, which account for the largest share of unpaid work.

Despite the proliferation of labour-saving household technologies and shifting family landscape in many economies, traditional gender imbalances in unpaid work remain in most countries. Even in double-earner households, women assume a greater share of care work and domestic chores. We show that, while men have increased their time spent on unpaid work, women still spend from 20 to 1,000 per cent more time than men around the world. Evidence suggests that advanced economies have experienced reductions in the gender gap in unpaid work hours in recent years (Bick and others 2018; Fang and McDaniel 2017). Consistent with this, we find that, over time, women are doing more paid and less unpaid work in advanced economies, while the opposite is true for men. The decline in unpaid work is driven by changes in the time allocation within couples. In terms of employment, the reduction in female unpaid work is driven by women in part-time employment, whereas men spend more time on unpaid work. In terms of education, more educated women in advanced economies are engaged in paid work, whereas men across all levels of education are doing more unpaid work.

Female unpaid work is negatively correlated with female labour force participation. Laws, regulations, and other social institutional constraints that restrict women’s ability to work, manage their wealth, or run businesses are associated with higher female unpaid work and lower male unpaid work.

To quantify the effects of policies encouraging women’s participation in paid work, we use a model featuring market and unpaid home production by women and men. We run a counterfactual scenario, where barriers to women’s paid work across 18 advanced and emerging economies are reduced to the level of Norway—one of the most egalitarian countries in the sample. Our findings suggest sizable gains in output for countries which depend on the initial gender gaps in hours of unpaid work. In Pakistan and Japan, for instance, policies that reduce constraints to women’s paid work yield between three to four per cent of GDP and over 35 per cent reduction in the unpaid hours’ gender gap. Countries with more equal allocation of paid and unpaid work between men and women gain less from targeted policies. However, the model predicts that further productivity growth of the services sector would encourage gradual marketization of household production and higher female labour force participation.

Value of unpaid work

Unpaid work—home production or non-market production—is defined as work not compensated by a wage. As a result, it generally falls outside the standard definition of economic output. Unpaid work broadly comprises two areas of activities: (i) Care work for children, the elderly and the sick and (ii) domestic chores—cleaning and household upkeep; construction and repairs; cooking and food production; household management and shopping, volunteering. Both categories include the time spent traveling to perform those tasks.

Since unpaid work comprises non-market activities, there is no observable price for the services provided and it is generally difficult to quantify in national accounts data. Unpaid work is thus not included in GDP. However, we know that the amount of unpaid work is substantial. In recent years a detailed account of unpaid work has been made possible by the systematic collection of time use data. Time use data show how many hours individuals devote to paid and unpaid work, as well as leisure and personal care. Unlike labour force surveys, time use surveys capture both market (or paid) work and non-market (or unpaid) activities and can help uncover behavioural choices in time allocation. The surveys also reveal differences based on gender, age, and location.

Gender gap in unpaid work

Unpaid work falls disproportionately on women. On average, women do more than two more hours of unpaid work per day than men, but there is wide variation across countries. Women in Hong Kong spend 2.6 hours a day on unpaid work, and in Mexico 7.1 hours.

Gender imbalances in the distribution of unpaid work vary significantly across countries. In Norway, one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, women do 20 per cent more unpaid work than men. The corresponding number is 60 per cent in the US. In Japan, women do four times as much unpaid work as Japanese men. Uneven distribution of unpaid work can be explained partly by persistent gender wage gaps and gender-based comparative advantages in unpaid work but also by barriers and constraints imposed by culture, regulations, and lack of family-friendly policies.

Unpaid work by women tends to decline with the level of economic development of a country. This reflects both a reduction and a redistribution of unpaid work. As economies get richer and female labour force participation rises, a larger share of tasks is traded in the marketplace instead of being performed at home. At the same time, unpaid work by men increases, allowing for a redistribution of unpaid work by gender and an increase in paid work by women. A notable increase in male unpaid work (i.e., sharing unpaid work with women) in advanced economies may be one of the factors that enabled women to participate in the labour force in recent years.

Domestic chores represent the vast majority of unpaid work. On average, domestic chores account for over 80 per cent of total hours spent on unpaid work). In high-income countries, women spend 4.1 hours on domestic chores, roughly half an hour less than their peers in emerging and developing economies. Time-use surveys from 18 high- and middle-income economies show that women spend almost two hours more than men preparing food and cleaning. They also spend significantly more time shopping and taking care of children. On the other hand, care work is stable across income groups (slightly less than one hour per day). On average, men in high-income countries double their amount of time spent on care work with respect to low and lower-middle income countries from 0.2 to 0.4 hours per day. They also increase the amount of time spent on domestic chores from 1.1 to 1.8 hours per day.

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