In her annual letter, Melinda Gates wrote about pronounced gender disparities in who takes on the burden of “care work”—things like cooking, cleaning, gathering firewood or water, caring for children, the elderly or other relatives. This unpaid work, which takes place in every country on Earth, frequently restricts women’s ability to contribute economically to their families, to their communities and to entire countries.
The data are clear: in every region of the world, women disproportionately take on more, or all, of duties that fall under care work. In the United States, for example, women do twice the number of unpaid care hours as men. As a result of the double-shift in paid and unpaid work, women often experience what is known as “time poverty,” leaving women less time to pursue other activities, like working in the formal sector or pursuing educational opportunities that could result in better, higher paid jobs.
Unpaid care work has significant implications for economic growth: The value of unpaid care work worldwide is estimated to add up to or at least $12 trillion dollars, more than the GDP of China. According to a McKinsey report this figure may even under-estimate the full value of unpaid care work. A large part of undervaluing care work means that no one has been measuring it. When this unpaid work is not accounted for, we simply don’t know enough to address the barriers and challenges women face reconciling paid formal work and unpaid care work. Moreover, when care work is undervalued, social policies are not developed to improve care for the elderly, the young and the infirm. When care work is undervalued, those that work in caring professions as nannies, nurses, home-carers are often underpaid and their work is not covered by labor legislation—or worse, it is informal and unregistered.
As an example, in the U.S. Supreme Court case Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, Evelyn Coke, a home care worker sued her employer, Long Island Care, for back pay when she discovered that, though she often worked long hours in her clients’ homes, she had never received overtime pay. The Court ruled that because of the exemption of “companions to the elderly” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Coke’s employer had done nothing illegal. While the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) continues to work to raise the wages of care workers and hold their employers to account, this case underscores the lack of value placed on care work and the murky labor regime it occupies where the legal rights and protections are not extended.
G7 countries have the unique opportunity to influence global benchmarks and encourage other countries to formalize and professionalize care work, and to increase their focus on promoting women’s employment in decent and fair conditions. Both domestically and in foreign assistance, G7 countries should require social programs to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work. This could include: offering subsidies and tax rebates for child care, expanding education and after-school programs as well as child and elder care programs, and recognizing your right to a social pension if you have spent much of your productive life caring for others. This would not only support women’s ability to enter and remain in the labor market, but also allow men to enjoy the rights and responsibilities of caring.
This month, the G7 Summit will take place in Japan. The G7, or Group of 7, is made up of the world’s wealthiest nations: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Originally, the group met in response to the economic crises facing the globe in the 1970s, in an attempt to set global economic policies that would be mutually beneficial and lead to global economic stability. The group has continued to meet to set not only economic policies, but also foreign policy and security priorities that impact the entire world.
Each year, the G7 sets an agenda on the issues they determine to be most pressing for the global community. Last year’s agreements yielded a $34 million dollar plan to help some of the most vulnerable developing countries address climate change, and to dramatically reduce wealthy countries’ use of fossil fuels.
This year’s agenda is wide-ranging, embracing the global economy and trade, foreign policy, health and other areas deemed critical, including women’s economic empowerment. While various issues facing women have been included in previous G7 meetings, this will be the first year in which women and gender equity broadly constitutes a stand-alone and permanent priority area, as declared by Chancellor Angela Merkel last year. This is significant because while we know that women make up a little more than 50% of the global population, creating a women-centric agenda item finally highlights the important role women can – and must – play in economies around the world.
Given the global importance of investing in women’s economic empowerment and taking into account barriers they face, ICRW put forward a set of recommendations that are designed to change the way countries view the unpaid care work women do, which we know is so prevalent in countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
We know that if and when the burden of unpaid care work is taken into account by policy makers and monitored to inform the development of policies and programs affecting women, we see real progress across most of the areas the G7 is covering this year, as well as progress toward the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.
This year’s G7 represents an opportunity that we can’t afford to miss. For too long, the work that is often left to women, from cleaning the house to cooking for the family to hauling firewood and water, has gone unrecognized and uncompensated. We have to begin to rethink how we value the services that fall under care work and who specifically is doing that work. The G7 has made a promising start by ensuring that gender equality and women’s economic empowerment is one of the limited number of agenda items at this year’s summit, but without recognizing the unique role that the unpaid care burden has played in limiting women’s economic opportunity, women’s potential to contribute to their families, communities, and countries will continue to be stifled.
Rachel Clement is a Policy Associate at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). She has worked in Austria, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Philippines, Russia, and Vietnam with and for youth, primarily on gender issues. You can find her on Twitter.