Women, Burdened With Unpaid Labor, Bear Brunt of Global Inequality

While billionaires, most of them men, continue to accumulate wealth, women around the world are trapped in poverty because they spend much of their time on “uncompensated” work.

By Alisha Haridasani Gupta

“The fact that women around the world are doing so much work that is uncompensated, unrecognized and unsupported is part of the problem.”

— Gawain Kripke, policy director at Oxfam America

As world leaders and executives descended in their private jets this week on the snow-capped town of Davos, Switzerland, to discuss climate change and inclusive capitalism (the irony of which has not gone unnoticed), the international nonprofit Oxfam released a study to highlight the extremes of global wealth inequality.

The report is stuffed with alarming statistics about the wealth gap: The world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth between them than 4.6 billion people; if someone saved $10,000 a day since the building of the pyramids in Egypt, they still would not have as much money as the five richest billionaires; if everyone were to sit on their own wealth piled up in $100 bills, a middle-class person in a rich country would be at the height of a chair, and the world’s two richest men would be sitting in outer space.

Punchy factoids aside, the Oxfam report also called attention to the idea that wealth and poverty are gendered. While billionaires, most of them men, continue to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, women around the world spend copious amounts of time and energy on taking care of children and the elderly or managing the home — unpaid labor that is vital to the economy.

“There’s something deeply sick about the economy,” said Gawain Kripke, the policy director at Oxfam America. “The fact that women around the world are doing so much work that is uncompensated, unrecognized and unsupported is part of the problem.”

On average, women globally spend 4.5 hours of their day on unpaid work while men spend about half that time.

In richer countries, that gap is smaller, but nowhere in the world do men do as much unpaid work as women. In Norway, a country often hailed as a gender equal utopia, women spend about an hour more on unpaid work than men, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). But in India, women spend almost six hours on unpaid labor and men spend less than an hour.

And those figures might even be an underestimation of the time spent on unpaid work and care because much of the data relies on self-reported time diaries, Kripke said. Women are often doing two things at once — cooking and looking after children, for example. But while cooking might be measured as one hour of labor, the child care element might be categorized as secondary or even unreported entirely, Kripke explained.

Because women tend to earn less than men, they have more of an economic incentive to give up their job and focus on work at home while the higher earner goes to work. But because they have so much to look after at home, they often can’t take on a higher-paid job that might require more commitment, creating a vicious cycle that traps women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, perpetuating the gender pay gap.

The solution lies in, at first, recognizing unpaid labor as work — or shifting the entrenched perception that unpaid work isn’t valuable, said Susan Himmelweit, emeritus professor of economics at the Open University in Britain, whose research has focused on the care economy.

The Oxfam report, which was created in partnership with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, estimates that the value of the billions of hours spent on unpaid care work is about $10.8 trillion a year, or between one-third and one-half of a country’s G.D.P., according to Himmelweit.

Second, governments and policymakers should offer incentives to households to reduce and rebalance the burden of unpaid labor, which has been identified as a priority by Melinda Gates and the International Monetary Fund.

For developing countries, that involves investing in technologies that would free up large chunks of time. “Simple things like clean cookstoves, which cook faster and don’t require foraging for fuel, or water points that make it easier to get water, can really help,” Kripke said.

And in developed nations, that means family-friendly policies, like paid parental leave.

Not only will these efforts enable women to participate in the economy and, in turn, boost growth, but “people, especially women, will be happier,” Kripke said.

“We undervalue women’s choices and their happiness and even their health,” he added, “all of these things that, again, economists wouldn’t measure but are so important.”

Source: New York Times

Related to SDG 5: Gender equality

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