February 29, 2016
The New York Times

Key to unlocking women’s potential lies in reducing their time spent on housework

Around the world women spend far more time on unpaid work—cooking, cleaning, caring for their family—than men, who spend more time in paid labor.

Though essential for societies to operate effectively, this unpaid work is valued far less than paid work. Since a large majority of housework is carried out by women, taking up much of their time, this inequality is holding them back from performing other roles within the labor market and is perpetuating the gender pay gap.

Melinda Gates has stated that decreasing this “time poverty” experienced by women due to unpaid housework is a priority for the Gates Foundation in 2016 because “if we don’t… we won’t unlock the potential of women.”

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) time-use data show that richer countries such as the US and UK have a smaller time gap for unpaid work than poorer nations such as India. However, on average women spend more than double the amount of time men spend on work such as child care, laundry, cooking etcetera, with men spending far more time on leisure activities.

OECD data also show that reducing the time women spend on housework from 4.5 hours to 3 hours, their labor force participation increases by 10%. This is an important statistic; women who do not attend school, have children who are more likely to stay in poverty and be less healthy, their poverty will persist through the generations. If men were to undertake more housework, women would have time for more paid work or to become more educated.

This redistribution of unpaid work can be encouraged through policies such as paid parental leave for both parents, distributing contraception to women in poorer countries, and increasing women’s access to technologies to reduce the time taken on household chores. Cultural change is another very important factor, according to Melinda Gates.

Leslie Stratton has written an article for us in which she finds that boosting the efficiency of household production could have large economic effects. She writes: “Efforts to reduce the gender wage gap and alter gendered norms of behavior should reduce the gender bias in household production time and reduce inefficiency in home production.”

Stratton notes that women who spend more time on housework earn lower wages, which suggests that there is a vicious cycle: Wage inequalities perpetuate allocations of housework time to women, and housework time allocations drive wage inequalities. These gender differences in housework time caused by social and cultural norms in society are not efficient and hold back a nation’s economic growth. Her policy advice has an emphasis on tax policy which reduces women’s incentives to increase time at home after marriage, and on education: “Education programs that provide both boys and girls with the skills necessary to maintain a home and that discourage gendered notions of behavior could increase the efficiency of time allocation decisions.”

Featured article:
The determinants of housework time, by Leslie S. Stratton

Read more articles on demography, family, and gender.