The Invisible Work That Women Do Around the World

According to the UN, women take on three of every four hours of unpaid labor.

Erik de Castro / Reuters

Over the past 25 years, according to the United Nations, about 2 billion people have seen improvements in health care, sanitation, and job opportunities. That’s tremendous progress, but, as UN researchers note in a new report, paying attention to how those jobs are divvied up and compensated is important, especially from the perspective of making sure that poor and marginalized groups are getting their fair share.

Women, in particular, are continually excluded from some of these economic improvements. For the most part, the work associated with everyday life, such as cooking, cleaning, and looking after children, continues to fall to women. In poorer nations, these time-consuming (and uncompensated) tasks can include long journeys to gather water or firewood, but similar gender gaps are prevalent in developed nations, too. In the U.S., where the division of labor has moved toward equality in the past 50 years, women still perform several hours of unpaid labor every week in the form of care taking or housekeeping. “Women work more than men, even if a large part is relatively invisible,” the report concludes.

In total, the UN finds, women do three out of every four hours of unpaid labor, while men do two-thirds of work that is paid. And, by and large, women are more likely to be employed in more vulnerable and tenuous occupations than men, working informal jobs where they can be taken advantage of or dismissed without legal protections. (Even when women do get paid for their labor, they aren’t making as much as men: Globally, women’s wages are on average 24 percent less than men’s.)

This uneven division of labor dictates the economic opportunities of women of all nationalities and socioeconomic groups, according to Selim Jahan, the author of the UN report. “Earnings make for economic independence, a critical factor towards individual autonomy, voice, and agency in households and the community,” he writes. “An unequal distribution of care responsibilities in the household may require one parent to take time off more frequently than the other, reducing the former parent’s current and prospective earnings and perpetuating divergences.”

This divide is only going to become a more significant problem as some countries’ populations, including the U.S.’s, China’s, and Japan’s, get older, and women are expected to care not just for their children but for their aging parents as well. The professional ramifications for women are many; they could see their working years and earnings truncated even further.

The UN offers a few suggestions for how to make sure that women are accessing new economic gains at the rate that men are—and they’re all familiar. The report says that increasing paid parental leave for both men and women—an area where U.S. policy lags that of all other developed nations—could play a big role in advancing labor equality between the sexes. It also recommends that men take on more of the unpaid labor that women are spending so much time on. Additionally, making sure that women are paid equally for doing the same jobs as men would enable some households to hire caregivers, such as nurses, babysitters, and part-time aides—something that would simultaneously boost the economic stations of both the working woman and her hired replacements.