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Jaclyn McCosker

Overworked and Underpaid: The silent labour of the world's women

Overworked and Underpaid: The silent labour of the world's women

Gender stereotypes run deep. Deeper than any of us are even conscious of. To recognise, discuss and analyse the stereotypes we hold for others takes work. Lots and lots of real work. Even if we know we can critically analyse some stereotypes as “wrong”, that doesn’t stop us from holding them subconsciously and having them influence our perceptions for others unknowingly. We were raised with these preconceptions after all. They’re embedded into our identity. This is why we know we believe women are equal and should hold equal positions of power and authority as men, yet we continue to lean towards women being the first choice for childcare and domestic work, while making assumptions about the character of "career women". Those kinds of assumptions that she must be bossy, assertive, a ball buster. How else could she find herself in authority above a man? For her to be outside her gender role, she must have personality traits that are conventionally unattractive in a woman.

These silent gender stereotypes we carry inside of us translate into real life gender employment segregation. Often externally imposed upon us, outright prohibiting girls from education or work in certain areas. But even more often, these stereotypes are imposed by ourselves or our immediate family, for fear of what will be said about us if we break the mould. Men and women typically do make choices that place them in careers with unequal earning potential. We absolutely make different choices. But these choices are influenced and enforced by gender stereotyping.

Girls are less likely to pursue STEM careers than boys, dropping out of these subjects at school by the age of 15 (according to a Microsoft survey of European teens). If they do pursue a STEM career, they are less likely to ever achieve the same level of pay or progress as far in their careers as the men, and are likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace. From a young age, girls are more likely to aim for casual, low-earning or informal roles that maintain the flexibility to be the primary carers for children.

Boys are less likely to pursue clerical, support or caregiving careers, being told from a young age that those jobs are for girls. If they do, they are more likely to end up in positions of authority, advance faster in their career and receive higher salaries for the same work, all while still receiving less desirable pay or benefits than if they were to stay in a male-dominated field. Men are unlikely to choose casual or informal roles that will facilitate childcare.

These gender stereotypes go beyond just the career roles we choose, but to the way women and men divide unpaid childcare, domestic work and leisure time. In every country in the world, we know that women do more domestic work than men regardless of hours spent at work. If the man goes to work and the woman stays home, the woman is doing all the work. If the man and woman go to work in the same job, the woman is doing more work. If the man works part-time and the woman works over-time, still, the woman is coming home and doing more work than the man. Across every culture, religion and continent.

Development professionals and economists alike recognise that it is the free labour of women which upholds society and keeps our head above water, as men rely on women to do this work for free which allows their earned income to be spent elsewhere. Unpaid domestic work may typically be ignored in macroeconomic policies, but those who have taken the time to look at the data can hardly deny the importance of reproducing the human race while keeping us fed, clothed and in school.

By lumping all of the unpaid work onto girls and women while also failing to acknowledge its value to society, we limit women's ability to fully recognise their human rights or to equally participate in education, employment and political decision-making.

Unpaid labour looks like childcare, domestic cleaning, cooking, community volunteering (e.g. school canteens and dance mums), working for the family business without pay, and those basic survival tasks such as collecting firewood or water. The daily tasks vary dramatically across countries and cultures, but the division of labour between the genders appears the same across the board.

I see that we have three problems: Ignoring the value of unpaid labour, gender stereotyping of career paths, and a gender pay gap. Here I’m tackling only the first two points because equal pay for equal work requires a whole other conversation unto itself.

Study by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, more at

Study by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, more at

Globally, women spend 2.5x the amount of time on unpaid care and domestic work than men. This is what UN Women refer to as the 'care economy'. Employment options are limited by the expectation women will spend more time at home and be first to surrender their employment to care for children, the elderly or the ill. This expectation falls upon the woman even if her education level or earning potential is above that of her male partner. The weight of social norms can outweigh government policy that is meant to pave the way for equal opportunity.

Even the most progressive feminist men and women are failing to challenge much of the stereotype that women are maternal homebodies that love to potter about the house and make things look pretty. Sure, many women are like this. But why aren’t men viewed as having pride in their homes, too? We seem to frame it as a personal preference, as if all women regardless of their other differences happen to share an affinity for running the house and caring for the kids from sun up ‘til they collapse in bed at night, while being perfectly happy for the man of the house to kick back with a beer after only eight hours of work in the office. This may be the way many women’s lives look under the pretence that men’s jobs are “harder” or "more important" so they “deserve” to do less around the house. But analysing the data shows we’re misinterpreting how much work men really do, and that progress on this isn’t moving fast enough.

What we see from the feminist movement is that more women are adopting more “masculine” roles by participating in the labour market and working at a higher rate than ever before. Women are aggressively challenging gender norms and creating opportunity for all women that follow them.

What we are not seeing from the feminist movement is reciprocation or balance from men adopting more “feminine” roles. We are not seeing an increase to the same degree of unpaid or domestic work from men, besides the typical increase that’s required as our domestic units get smaller. Men in developed regions are now less likely to live with additional female family members that continue to shoulder the domestic burden in more collectivist communities (mothers, aunts, sisters-in-law, grandmothers, etc). While smaller households mean women are more likely to need to work to help support the family, men aren't meeting them in the middle to split the housework now they're both employed. Gender gaps are narrowing globally, but they remain very wide in developing countries and the gap still persists in all cultures. Men are taking on more domestic responsibilities, but it is still far from equal.

To lessen the divide between men and women is to stop presuming that public spaces belong to men while private spaces belong to women. This segregation leaves women out of public discourse, legislation and policy that could help facilitate their move into the workplace. Changing the conversation to hold men equally accountable for private spaces (their families and homes) could finally deliver the practical support women need to be better included in public spaces, making use of those well-meaning equal opportunity policies governments already have in place.

Addressing the socio-economic disadvantage of women requires a shift in how we value women's contributions. The change we see may be a radical shift where all gender roles become obsolete and men and women split the work inside and outside the home equally. Or maybe, and possibly more realistically, the change we see may be a shift in emphasis of importance on different gender roles and how we respect the value of domestic work and childcare. If we recognise the value of this work, we may finally see women included in decision-making across all social, political and economic spheres. Particularly in democratic processes that establish the laws that govern our daily lives and which historically fail to protect the safety or autonomy of women.

Our economic progress is built on the labour of mum's. Those that stay at home full-time, and those that spend every waking hour outside of paid employment being primarily responsible for childcare, cooking, cleaning and volunteering. A 2014 study mentioned in UN Women's 'Progress of the World's Women 2015-2016' reported that in the United States, the value of unpaid childcare was estimated at $2.3 trillion which is equivalent to 20% of America's GDP. If we didn't sacrifice paid employment to raise our kids for free, the US economy would need to increase by an entire 20% to cover this industry. Where would that money come from? In multiple countries studied the economic value was estimated up to a height of 39% of GDP. This makes the value of unpaid childcare higher than most commercial or industrial sectors such as manufacturing, real estate, mining or transportation. This unpaid work is the very glue that holds the economy together, from sub-Saharan Africa, across the South Pacific, and all the way to modern metropolis cities such as New York City and London.

If we were to recognise that women’s unpaid labour is responsible for upholding the paid labour force, we can begin to look at why we distribute income the way we do and why some jobs are considered more profitable than others. We can look at how we distribute welfare, why men are typically hired and promoted over women, why divorce and custody laws are established in certain ways, and why cases of discrimination or violence against women usually fail to achieve a conviction. Why is the active role of women in society viewed as “lesser than” despite studies showing women’s unpaid labour is economically beneficial for everyone? How does this devaluation of women translate into violence and discrimination against them, and the lack of political action on these issues while men continue to hold a majority of all positions of power?

Women don’t have to hold the same ratio of jobs as men in various fields to be considered equals. We don’t have to eliminate all traditional gender roles to start elevating the status of women. There doesn’t need to be a cultural revolution that throws everything we’ve ever known out the window to start rebuilding the world from scratch, for us to simply change the way we view women right now. As we exist in your community today. Within the positions in society we already occupy.

Women barristers, surgeons and engineers are already gaining respect and raising the status of women in society by moving into these industries that were once considered the domain of men. Even while they’re being paid less and facing plenty of hurdles in sexual harassment or discrimination to advancing in those careers. As a feminist, I’m forever grateful for these women forging their path and changing the face of the workplace. But raising the status of women goes far beyond respecting those that take on more masculine roles in society. Representation in paid work is a radical tool for gender equality, but women remain held back until there is gender equality in unpaid work.

We need to respect the traditionally feminine roles as equally important. We need to respect those women that due to economic restrictions or for any alternative reason or personal preference will not enter the workforce. Women in and out of formal employment deserve and have a right to equal time for education, leisure, self-improvement and self-care to have an equal quality of life and to allow them to pursue their own interests and goals. We need mothers and all women from even the lowest socio-economic brackets to have their voice heard in local and national politics. 

Solutions to fill the gap created by unpaid domestic labour include ideas like universal basic incomes, family allowances or carer pensions, subsidised childcare, comprehensive paid maternity leave policies and creating flexible working conditions for parents for an easier work-life balance. These measures reward valuable labour, reduce gendered economic inequality, allow mothers to integrate into the workforce and fathers to spend more time at home, ensure downtime from domestic duties needed to pursue well-rounded lives, and offer improved living conditions for all women and children by a more egalitarian distribution of resources.

Across all cultures, women burden more of the work but receive less of the benefits of economic growth. This disproportionate division of necessary tasks prevents women from participating fully in the world as equals to men. We can simultaneously encourage a fairer share of domestic work with a greater recognition of the importance of domestic work itself. Whether a woman is a high-powered business executive or she provides full-time childcare for her family, both are important contributors to a thriving economy that deserve an equal voice in policymaking. 

If we acknowledge the value, economic or otherwise, in running a household, perhaps we can convince men that there is purpose and meaning to being a good husband, father, brother, son or housemate that fulfils his share of responsibilities. And perhaps with a fairer burden of domestic duties, we can finally free up the time for women to explore their own lives as individuals beyond the home and family.


Cover image by Ibrahim Asadin the Maldives.

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