Working Towards a New Conceptualisation of “Work”

unpaid care work

Around the world, women perform more than 75 percent of unpaid care work and spend, on average, 3.2 times more time on unpaid care work than men. This phenomenon not only occurs in developing countries but the same pattern is observed in developed countries as well. There are no countries where men and women spend the same amount of time on unpaid care work.

However, because unpaid care work is domestic, it is unrecognised. When looking at official measures such as GDP, it may appear that women are not fully participating in the economy, but women are clearly involved. Thus, instead of focusing on how to bring women into the labour market, as the neoliberal agenda often does, the conversation within development economics should instead focus on recognising the role women already play in the economy and counting unpaid care work towards economic growth and development. This could greatly promote gender equality and change the way development policy is designed.

What counts as work?

Arguably, the most ubiquitous and prominent number in economics and political analysis is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since its inception in 1937, GDP has been used to rank and compare countries, and it is often employed as a proxy for economic development and well-being. GDP is part of the System of National Accounts (SNA), which uses a production boundary to distinguish economic from non-economic activity. The production boundary has remained largely unchanged since its creation, except for its inclusion of financial services. There are many arguments, including one from Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, for why GDP should be thrown out and replaced by a better measure of economic progress, such as the Human Development Index or an indicator that measures environmental degradation.

Feminist economists also argue for a reevaluation of GDP, specifically advocating for its need to include unpaid work. Unpaid work within the SNA refers to housework, care work, and social reproduction activities such as childcare, meal preparation, cleaning, and care for the sick or elderly that occur within the home.

Figure 1: Time Spent on Unpaid Work: Selected Developing and OECD Countries (Antonopoulos, 2008 p.9)

Failing to recognise unpaid work as productive work and not counting it as part of GDP leads to gender bias in economic data because most unpaid work is carried out by women. Figure 1 shows that the gender gap in unpaid work ranges from 2 to 5 hours a day.

This argument is not new. Economists such as Margaret Reid argued in 1934 that basing national accounting measures on “that part of our economic system which is organized on a price basis” blinds economists from the work of the household which is “our most important economic institution.” Several arguments exist for why unpaid work cannot be included in the GDP. The most common misperception is that there exists a mathematical and logistical challenge in counting unpaid labour. Unpaid work does not have a price attached to it and, therefore, it is said to be too difficult to measure. However, feminist scholars have made efforts in terms of measurement, such as indicators for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals incorporating the measure of unpaid work, the International Labour Organization classifying unpaid work as a subset of “work,” and the increasing use of time use surveys. Now, the challenge is translating rhetoric and theory into mainstream practice.

Why does development economics need to challenge the conceptualization of GDP?

Development economics focuses on improving the economic and social conditions in developing countries. Institutions and researchers which rely upon GDP as a proxy for development and wellbeing run the risk of increasing women’s double burden and putting incorrect policies into place.

“Without unpaid services and their depletion being measured and valued, predictions are likely to be faulty, models inaccurate and development policies flawed.”  –Hoskyns and Rai

It is not only about challenging the rhetoric that productive “work” is work that is paid and contributes to GDP, but it is about realizing the importance of women for social reproduction. Social reproduction refers to all the processes which allow the worker to work. It is about who produces the worker. Arguably, the processes which produce the worker are equally valuable to the real “work” counted by the GDP. Unpaid care work is underacknowledged and appreciated yet essential to the global economy.

Figure 2: Mean time (in minutes) spent per day on SNA work and extended SNA work (UNRISD, 2010)

As clearly illustrated by Figure 2, women in developing countries, and even developed countries such as South Korea, are expending more labour time in total than men, but women’s time remains ignored by GDP and thus invisible in representations of the economy which inform policy. However, by utilizing time use surveys and a replacement cost approach where the value of unpaid work is derived from the cost of hiring a worker to perform it, it has been found that the value of unpaid care work is 10 to 39 percent of GDP.

Therefore, it is of critical importance that processes of social reproduction are recognised and counted in GDP. Neoliberal economic agendas such as “Smart Economics,” which argues that gender equality is efficient and good for the economy, focus on women’s labour force participation but ignore the unpaid and social reproduction labour that women are already responsible for. Women do not have an infinite elasticity of time. Development policies that focus on giving jobs to women but lack a concerted effort to challenge the patriarchal structures and gender norms that cause unequal allocation of unpaid care work actually increase women’s burden and time poverty without producing systematic change.

However, change is possible. Programs and initiatives around the world, spearheaded by feminist economists, have been changing perceptions, redistributing unpaid care work, and causing policymakers to consider unpaid care work in development plans. Calls for action can be made when deficits are recognised.

In sum, feminist economics enriches development economics by changing the narrative on what counts as work and, thus, what development and employment look like. This new narrative will drastically change development programs and policies, and it calls into question existing measures such as GDP as well as patriarchal structures and relations of power. While the renewed interest and increased efforts to value and track unpaid care work are encouraging, development economists, policymakers, and experts alike must continue to exert a conscious effort to ensure change and address gender inequality.

Sara Gammon is pursuing an MSc in Development Economics at SOAS, University of London. Previously she completed an MPhil in Development Studies as a 2020 Truman Scholar from the United States. Before that, she studied Agricultural Economics and Global Food Systems Leadership at Kansas State University. Her research interests include the role of agricultural development in decreasing food insecurity and malnutrition as well as methods for reducing gender inequities in agriculture.

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