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14 January 2020

Women's unpaid care work has been unmeasured and undervalued for too long

Diva Dhar

DIVA DHAR: Unpaid care work is one of the biggest gender gaps in the world, improving the way it's measured could help transform women's lives and further global gender equality

Unpaid care work

This piece was originally written for the Global Institute for Women's Leadership's new Essays on Equality publication, which features contributions on a range of different issues by leading researchers and figures working on gender equality.

Read the full collection of essays

The gender gap in unpaid care work (UCW) is one of the most glaring manifestations of inequality between men and women around the world. Women perform 75 per cent of such work globally, dedicating, on average, four hours and 25 minutes daily to it – more than three times men’s average of one hour and 23 minutes. 606 million women of working age perform UCW on a full-time basis, compared with just 41 million men. While it’s often not acknowledged or appreciated, unpaid care work really is work – often very hard work. It’s essential not just for families, but for the economy as a whole, too.

According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) definition, UCW encompasses three categories of activities: domestic services for own use within the household, caregiving services to household members, and community services and help to other households. Measuring and recognising this unpaid work is important for several reasons. First, the gender gap in UCW is itself a significant indicator of gender inequality. Second, poor estimation of UCW has led to underinvestment in public policies and services to address the issue and associated social and economic losses.

Not only is UCW itself a manifestation of gender inequality, but the disproportionate burden borne by women and girls around the globe has a ripple effect on other domains of their lives, such as education and paid work. With girls doing more UCW, inequalities compound from an early age and diminish girls’ social and economic participation, as well as their physical and mental health. Globally, girls aged between five and 14 years old spend 40 per cent more time – or 160 million more hours per day – on unpaid household chores and collecting water and firewood compared to boys. This gender gap increases with age, peaking for women between the ages of 25 and 44 – the prime years for employment and career-building. No wonder that less than half the women in this age bracket are counted as “working”, in the formal sense of the word, by official statistics.


Women perform 75 per cent of such work globally, dedicating, on average, four hours and 25 minutes daily to it – more than three times men’s average of one hour and 23 minutes."

Diva Dhar

Feminist researchers and advocates have been clamouring for decades for better recognition and valuation of unpaid care to inform social policies and services. The economic contribution of UCW is roughly estimated at $10 trillion per year, around 13 per cent of global GDP, yet it is not recognised as “work” that is a vital input into economic growth. Besides, this huge (and inexact) number doesn’t even begin to capture women’s lost autonomy and economic potential. But as the issue begins to receive more attention, there is a growing impetus for better measurement, increased data collection, and stronger evidence on programmes and solutions to address unpaid care. There are three major ongoing efforts to move the field forward to better measure and recognise UCW.

The first is inclusion in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which now stress the importance of addressing the gender gap in UCW, helping to boost calls for better measurement and policy change. SDG Target 5.4 acknowledges the need for action in both the public and private spheres to redress the gender balance in UCW, highlights the importance of public policy and services to lighten the burden of UCW overall, and calls for redistribution and sharing of UCW within the family and household. The accompanying indicator mandates the reporting and collection of data on time spent on unpaid domestic and care work, by sex, age and location. UCW has also been an important theme in numerous influential reports from the ILO, UN Women, UNICEF and Goalkeepers, among others.

The second key move has been formal recognition of UCW as a form of work, which happened in 2013, at the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians, convened by the ILO. UCW is now categorised as a subset of “work” alongside employment, underscoring women’s economic contributions. This shift stressed the importance of considering and measuring unpaid work to both the policy and statistical communities. Over the last few years, the Women Work and Employment partnership between the ILO, World Bank, Data2x and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, has been working to develop guidance and operationalise this new definition of work. The partnership is piloting, validating, and harmonising measures to better capture women’s work in household and labour force surveys around the world. This will help uncover the breadth of women’s unpaid work and more accurately value their diverse roles and contributions to the economy.

The third development has been in advancing measurement and data collection. Time use surveys (TUS) are the primary method for collecting data on unpaid work. However, only 88 countries have ever conducted some form of TUS, partly because they can be complex, costly and burdensome. But in recent years, researchers have been working on innovative approaches to collect better data in this area, including lighter time use modules to include in more periodic labour force surveys (eg ILO); phone surveys (eg National Council of Applied Economic Research and University of Maryland) and even technologies such as wearable activity trackers (eg World Bank) or necklace cameras (eg University of California, Berkeley). These methods will increase the reliability and quality of evidence to show the extent and distribution of care work.

When accurate data is collected and made available, calls for action can be made and decisions taken. And this can help transform women’s lives."

Diva Dhar

These are important signs of progress, because when accurate data is collected and made available, calls for action can be made and decisions taken. And this can help transform women’s lives. For example, data on the “care deficit” in Uruguay helped make the case to expand care services for pre-school children and the elderly. In Finland, data on care and employment led to a string of policies to close the gender gap, such as increased paternity leave and free daycare for pre-school children. Moreover, recognising unpaid care as work is a first step in valuing activities carried out predominantly by women. This, alongside shifting gender norms around UCW, will be crucial to encourage men to take on more of the unpaid care burden, particularly as the number of women in the labour force increases.

This upsurge of work in measuring, tracking and valuing UCW, and increased efforts to use data to galvanise policymakers, is hugely encouraging. While there is a long road ahead, governments should pay attention to the data and do far more to put in place the policies, services and infrastructure that recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work.

Diva Dhar is Senior Programme Officer for Gender Data and Evidence at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.