Women's Unfair Share in Unpaid Work

Mandy Hollman
Women do more than twice as much unpaid work as men – cooking, cleaning, and parenting. Melinda Gates discusses time as a social justice issue.

1950's Housewife

What do men have that women don’t?


In the Gates Foundation annual letter, released last night, Melinda Gates spotlights “time poverty” as a critical social problem.   A time-use study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that women spend an average of 4.5 hours each day performing unpaid work — household tasks like cooking, cleaning, and caring for children — more than twice the average for men.  

The size of this gender gap varies widely by country, due to both economic and cultural factors.  It is most severe in the developing world. 

Tanzanian Women

“It’s almost impossible for those of us lucky enough to live in rich countries to understand how unpaid work dominates the lives of hundreds of millions of women and girls,” Gates writes.  She describes her time with a family in Tanzania.  Gates joined Anna, a mother of six, as she went about her daily routine.  Anna was hard at work all day, from 5 am until 10 pm, cooking over fires, fetching water, milking goats, cutting wood, and cleaning up after everyone.  Anna’s daughter stayed up long after the rest of the family, because she could not begin her homework until she finished her chores.  Gates suggests that easing the burden of women’s unpaid labor would go a long way toward improving economic and social conditions in developing countries.

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The situation in the U.S. is better, but still unequal — four hours of unpaid work per day for women, and 2.5 for men.  Though the 1950’s are long gone, cultural norms still stereotype cooking and cleaning as women’s work.  This bias is usually unspoken and often subconscious.  Yet, from childhood girls are socially conditioned to take on most of the housework.  A study by the University of Michigan found that, on average, girls spend two hours more per week on chores and are 15 percent less likely to receive an allowance.  Gates writes,

“Most girls don’t think they will be stuck with the same rules that kept their grandmothers in the home.  And most boys agree with them.

I’m sorry to say this, but if you think that, you’re wrong.  Unless things change, girls today will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility.” 

To make matters worse, household work is often belittled, largely because it is unpaid.  At the end of a hard week, a man working outside the home can relax and put his feet up, proud of a job well done.  He has a paycheck to prove it.  Meanwhile, his wife, who “doesn’t work,” has been corralling children, feeding everyone, and facing the endless barrage of dirty dishes and smelly socks.  He's a respected "professional," but she's "just a housewife," despite working at least as much.  The problem isn't limited to stay-at-home moms.  Even women with full-time jobs spend more time doing household chores than their male colleagues.  This drain on their time and energy contributes to the "glass ceiling" phenomenon; women have been socially conditioned to put their family's needs above their own, including their career ambitions.

Read more: "Not Meeting Your Career Goals?  You Have Your Husband to Blame."

Unpaid work is not a bad thing in itself.  It's part of life.  Somebody has to run errands, watch the children, and clean the house.  The problems arise when women are given an unequal share of the burden and when those who perform unpaid work don't get the respect they deserve.

Citing sociologist Diane Elson, Gates suggests a way forward:

"Recognize, reduce, and redistribute: Recognize that unpaid work is still work.  Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men."

Recognizing the value of unpaid work is essential for both men and women.  The value of a person's time does not lie in her or his hourly wage.  Unpaid work can be reduced by technology.  In the U.S., innovations like automatic dishwashers and washing machines eased housework.  Today, telecommuting is freeing up parents of both genders to care for their children while maintaining their careers.  In impoverished regions of Africa or India, something as simple as a new well goes a long way.  Redistributing the work involves cultural and political change.  Men in the U.S. are pitching in more with housework and childcare than they have in past generations.  There is even a growing population of "stay-at-home dads" (more power to them!).  More men need to step up and do their share.  Women need to be assertive; often, men don't even realize they aren't helping!  At a legal level, requirements like paid parental leave (including paternity leave) can make a huge difference.

Read more: "Sweden Widens its Lead as Most Generous Nation for Parental Leave"

A more equitable division of labor allows both men and women to live their lives to the fullest, not only in their careers but also at home.  Just as women have missed out on career opportunities, men have been deprived of time with their children.  As Melinda Gates reminds us, “Sharing the burdens of unpaid work also means sharing the joys.”

Banner image credit: Horacio Villalobos