For a long time, economists did not recognise unpaid work as work — nor the bias that declared certain tasks ‘women’s work’, or the bias that undervalued that work and divided that work unequally between men and women.
For years, when economists assessed the productivity of a family farm, they measured the hours of those who worked on the farm, but they didn’t count the hours of the women whose cooking, cleaning and caregiving allowed the farmworkers to be productive. Even very sophisticated analysts missed this work for years. They either didn’t see it at all or they dismissed its importance, reasoning that this is just the way the world works — women have this additional burden, like childbearing.
The failure of economists to acknowledge unpaid work got even more absurd as more women entered the formal workforce. A woman would put in a full day at work. When she finished her paid work, she would help the children with homework, vacuum the living room, do the laundry, cook the dinner, and put the kids to bed — hours and hours of work that were going completely unnoticed and uncounted.
An economist named Marilyn Waring saw the deep bias and began looking for ways to change it. Elected to New Zealand’s Parliament in 1975 when she was just 23 years old, she knew what it was like to be a working woman and to be ignored by the men who made the rules. But when she went looking for the research on women’s unpaid work, she couldn’t find it.
She asked a male economist to help her, and he told her: “Oh, Marilyn, there is no definitive work on it. You know enough; you write it.”
Studying unpaid work
So Waring travelled around the world studying unpaid work — and she calculated that if you hired workers at the market rate to do all the unpaid work women do, unpaid work would be the biggest sector of the global economy. And yet economists were not counting this as work.
Waring framed it this way: You pay for childcare in the marketplace. You pay for gas to run a stove. You pay a factory to make food from grain. You pay for water when it comes through a tap. You pay for a meal served in a restaurant. You pay for clothes washed in a laundry. But if a woman does it all by herself; caring for children, chopping firewood, grinding grain, fetching water, cooking meals, and washing clothes—no one pays her for it. No one even counts it, because it’s ‘housework’, and it’s ‘free’.
Waring published the book If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics in 1988. As American economist Julie Nelson put it, “Marilyn Waring’s work woke people up.”
In 1985, the UN had adopted a resolution asking countries to start counting women’s unpaid labour by 2000. After Waring published her book, they moved up the deadline to 1995.
In 1991, a female member of the US Congress introduced a bill that would have required the Bureau of Labour Statistics to count housework, childcare, and other unpaid work in its time-use surveys. The bill did not pass (women made up only six per cent of Congress at the time). It was reintroduced in 1993 and again in 1995. Each time, it was rejected.
Men won’t easily give up a system in which half the world’s population works for next to nothing
As Waring wrote, “Men won’t easily give up a system in which half the world’s population works for next to nothing,” especially as men recognise that “precisely because that half works for so little, it may have no energy left to fight for anything else.”
Finally, in 2003, the Bureau of Labour Statistics started conducting a national time-use survey that measured housework and childcare hours. It shows that men have more time for recreational activities like playing games and exercising, while women not only do more unpaid work but do more work altogether.
Acknowledging this problem has led to some efforts to fix it. After Waring published her book, economist Diane Elson came up with a three-part framework to shrink the gap between the time men spend on unpaid work and the time women spend on it. She called it the 3 Rs: recognise, reduce, redistribute.
Elson says we need to start by recognising that unpaid work is being done. That is why we need to get governments to count the hours women spend in unpaid work. Then we can reduce the number of hours that unpaid work takes, using technologies like cookstoves or washing machines or improved breast pumps. Finally, we can redistribute the work we can’t reduce, so that men and women share it more equitably.
“Thinking about the concept of unpaid work shapes the way I see what happens in our house. I want to be honest—I’ve had terrific long-term help in raising our children and managing our household tasks. I don’t know all the personal struggles of other couples who have to balance work with the responsibilities of family and home. I can’t speak for them, and I would never compare my situation with theirs.
“But I do know an imbalance in unpaid work when I see it in my own home—and I see it! It’s a lot of work raising kids: taking them to school, to the doctor, to sports practice and drama lessons; supervising homework; sharing meals; keeping the family connected to friends at birthday parties, weddings, and graduations. It takes a lot of time. And at different points, I have come to Bill, exhausted, and said “Help!”
“When Jenn started kindergarten in the fall of 2001, we found a school that was ideal for her, but it was thirty or forty minutes away and across a bridge, and I knew I would be driving back and forth from home to school twice a day. When I complained to Bill about all the time I would be spending in the car, he said, “I can do some of that.” And I said, “Seriously? You’ll do that?” “Sure,” he said. “It’ll give me time to talk with Jenn.”
“So Bill started driving. He’d leave our house, drop Jenn at school, turn around, drive back past our neighborhood and on to Microsoft. Twice a week he did that. About three weeks in, on my days, I started noticing a lot of dads dropping kids off in the classroom. So I went up to one of the moms and said, “Hey, what’s up? There are a lot of dads here.” She said, “When we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands, ‘Bill Gates is driving his child to school; you can, too’. ”
Nobody leaves the kitchen until Mom leaves the kitchen
“One night, a few years later, I was once again the last one in the kitchen after dinner, cleaning up for the five of us, and in a fit of personality I declared, “Nobody leaves the kitchen until Mom leaves the kitchen.” There’s nothing about being a mom that means I have to clean up while others wander off. Bill supported that — even if I did have to allow him his own niche as the guy who wants to wash the dishes because no one else gets it just right.
“If I tried to read the minds of my readers here, I would worry that some of you might be thinking, Oh, no — the privileged lady is tired of being the last one in the kitchen all by herself. But she doesn’t have to get up before the sun. Her kids don’t have to take the bus. Her childcare support is reliable. She has a partner who is willing to drive the kids and do the dishes. I know. I know. I’m describing my own scene not because it’s a problem but because it’s my vantage point on the problem.
“Every family has its own way of coping, and all families can use help managing the tasks of raising kids and running the home. So in the summer of 2018, I met with researchers I’m funding and asked them to go into ten communities across the United States to study how families manage their caregiving responsibilities—what labor-saving devices they use, how they divide the work, how public policy helps them, and how income affects the way they care for family members.
“The way the researchers talked about their work was very moving to me. To care is human — and caring for children or aging parents should be an expression of love. It can offer us some of the most meaningful moments of our lives. But if it’s assumed that women will do all these tasks, then caring that should be joyful becomes a burden, and work that should be shared becomes isolating. I hope this research will give us a good picture of the trade-offs Americans make. What prompts some people to forgo income to raise kids and run the household? What prompts some to work from home and others to work outside the home? And what are the gender biases embedded in these decisions? Exploring these questions could lead to public policy and market-based approaches that help people juggle the duties of caring for a family — so we can all do more of what makes life meaningful.”
Excerpted from “Moment of Lift.” Copyright © 2019 by Melinda Gates. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.