Credit: (photo: iStock by Getty Images)

Kristalina Georgieva, Cristian Alonso, Era Dabla-Norris, and Kalpana Kochhar

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As much as half of the world’s work is unpaid.  And most of it is done by women.

This imbalance not only robs women of economic opportunities. It is also costly to society in the form of lower productivity and forgone economic growth. It follows that a fairer allocation of unpaid work would not only benefit women, but would also lead to more efficient work forces and stronger economies.

For these reasons, reducing gender imbalances in unpaid work is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Examples of unpaid work include cooking, cleaning, fetching food or water, and caring for children and the elderly.  These tasks are not counted as part of economic activity because they are difficult to measure based on values in the marketplace. Yet their economic value is substantial, with estimates ranging from 10 to 60 percent of GDP.

In our new study, we find that unpaid work declines as economic development increases particularly because there is less time spent on domestic chores. Social institutions and values can constrain the redistribution of unpaid work by preventing men from sharing the burden at home.

Unpaid work declines as economic development increases.

Overworked and underpaid

It’s no secret that women disproportionately shoulder the burden of unpaid work. Less well understood is just how many more unpaid hours women put in than men on a given day. Women do 4.4 hours of unpaid work on average around the world and men only 1.7 hours.

There are large differences across countries.

In Norway, the gap is small, with women doing 3.7 hours of unpaid work, while men contribute 3. On the other extreme, in Egypt, women do 5.4 hours per day of unpaid work and men only 35 minutes. In the US, women do 3.8 hours of unpaid work and men do 2.4 hours.

By not fully engaging women, the economy is misallocating resources, having women do low-productivity tasks at home instead of taking advantage of their full potential in the marketplace. It also misses exploiting the complementarity between women and men in the workplace. The result is lower productivity and economic growth. This gender gap in unpaid work is not just unfair. It is clearly inefficient.

Certainly, some unpaid work is done entirely by choice and the value to society of raising children for societies cannot be disputed. But more than 80 percent of unpaid work hours are devoted to domestic chores aside from child and elder care.

Too often women end up shouldering those domestic chores because of constraints imposed by cultural norms, lack of public services and infrastructure, or absence of family-friendly policies.

Women may also choose to stay at home or work only part-time if the wage in the market is too low and does not represent equal pay for equal work.

Engines of liberation

Policies can help reduce and redistribute unpaid work.  In developing economies, measures to improve water supply, sanitation, electricity, and transportation are critical to free women from low-productivity tasks.

UNICEF estimates that women spend 200 million hours per day worldwide simply fetching water. In India, women spend more than an hour every day collecting firewood. Better access to electricity and water and less expensive appliances helped boost female labor force participation in Mexico and Brazil. Expanding internet access to the entire population can help women take advantage of the gig economy and flexible work arrangements.

Governments need to ensure access to education and health care for women. Without proper human capital, women’s possibilities in the labor market are very limited. According to UNESCO, 130 million school-age girls are not in school. It is not only a matter of providing the services, but also guaranteeing their use.

Many families in Pakistan choose not to send girls to school because of security concerns. Enshrining women’s rights in law could help to reshape social institutions and values that prevent access to education and healthcare.

Efficient and flexible labor markets help redistribute unpaid work. Active labor market policies, like those in Switzerland, can facilitate job matching. We find that flexible work arrangements are associated with less female unpaid work and make for a better work-life balance.

All in the family

Family-friendly policies also help. Many Nordic countries invest heavily in early childhood education and care, which allows for high enrollment and fosters women’s ability to return to work after giving birth.

Greater parity in maternal and parental leave policies can raise female labor force participation by smoothing women’s return to work and engaging fathers in care activities early on. Iceland’s parental leave policy is a good example: it sets the length of leave at nine months and earmarks three for each parent.

Reducing and redistributing unpaid work is an economic imperative. Governments must take decisive actions, and the private sector must join in to seize on the large potential gains.