Are We Undercounting Work Done by Women?

One of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN last year will attempt to tackle a problem that has been vexing economists and statisticians for decades: how to accurately measure unpaid labor performed mostly by women.

The need to “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work” is one of nine targets listed under the broader goal to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” It’s an important and worthy target. Absent comprehensive data about women’s productivity, policymakers operate with a truncated view of the economy—with little idea of how growth impacts, or is affected by, the kind of labor that generally falls to women to provide.

In the Indian context, the problems of inaccurate data are easy to see. According to the country’s most recent National Sample Survey, women’s “economic activity” is on the decline. This trend is backed up by the World Bank’s 2014 World Development Indicators, which show that only 27 percent of women age 15 or older participated in the labor force, down from 34 percent in 2000. That this decline is concentrated among poor, rural women—those most in need of job opportunities—makes it all the more puzzling.

But a closer look suggests that the way the National Sample Survey defines “economic activity” may be skewing the statistics. Among the categories excluded by the survey are people who undertake only domestic duties, as well as those who engage in domestic duties while also performing tasks like sewing, weaving, or collecting goods such as vegetables or firewood. It is very likely that a substantial percentage of the women who went missing from the labor force in India’s most recent survey had in fact resorted to unpaid and unrecognized activities in response to the country’s failure to generate broad-based employment.

India’s survey excludes the collection of goods on the grounds that such activities are “negligible.” But, according to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted after broad collaboration by member governments and civil society stakeholders, these activities count, and so should be counted.

Why does all this matter? As economists around the world have argued, and many women know from personal experience, failing to account for unpaid labor—such as taking care of the household, children, or other family members—implies that such labor has no value. And we all know that’s not true.

Without domestic or care activities, societies would fall apart. Accurately measuring how much time is spent on unpaid work is the first step to creating a social infrastructure that will promote shared responsibility within families and free up women to be full and equal citizens wherever they may live.  

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Very much true. Therefore, many women go to paid works are not necessarily merely due to increase income within the family but also due to "looked good" by the society. It is time to waking up people to see the importance of domestic roles, how noble it is, and to teach us to be smarter in using resources (not only money) to improve the quality if lives of our families.

America could concretely show it values home care /caregiving of family members by adopting a Social Security caregiver credit. This would allow home caregivers to count their work time at home taking care of family members who need care towards the number and amount of work credits they accumulate to receive Social Security. Caregivers are still mostly women so it would reward this work in a very concrete way!

Yes,society had devalued such activities performed by women for long and therefore had further contributed existing domestic abuses such as child labor/worse forms of child whereby the girl child performs odd /long period work at the expense of their education and health without reward.Its time researchers should come up with best solutions.Thanks, for drawing society attention to such big issue.

I strongly suppot human rights as a teacer of this subject


we want to work on Women critical issue mostly in Sindh province

More needs to be done by all and sundry in order to empower women and to make conditions necessary for them to be economically active. All barriers to their empowerment must be removed because they are a key component towards the achievement of sustainable development.

This is the most paradoxical and vexing of challenges and more timely than any i can think of. I will speak to the American situation since that is where i live. What might be useful is to measure the effects of non-mothering. Non-care. Look at the "ACE" life events checklist, and its correlates. Regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity, having poor personal foundations is VERY expensive, personally and socially. Not being well mothered leads to relationship strains, abuse given and tolerated, substance abuse, difficulties finding and keeping jobs, and some time in prison or other private facilities. So the question is, should we offer mothers financial and personal security in order to foster a safer, saner future; or should we just leave it be, and invest in mental health facilities, more prisons, and more juvenile reform programs. I think the former choice point is saner, but time will tell. The gift of a solid foundation is priceless but also tender, ephemeral, and not publicity worthy. It's much more 'interesting' to wrap our restless minds around problems than to devise and implement dull, sane solutions. There are a bazillion psychological, sociological, and economic studies showing that the treatment of women is directly related to well being. How much science do we need? Interestingly, the word "Maya" which in the hindu tradition means illusion, has its roots, or etymology in "measurement."

The unpaid labor by house wives is the main cause for the miserable condition of women in society.No one recognise her work and this is the only reason men undercount her everywhere,because home is the first school of every one.In developing countries condition is horrible.I want to work for this.

An excellent and timely piece, thank you Naila! I have not read the report, but I also wonder whether it excludes forms of paid labor that are stigmatized or criminalized, such as sex work?

Hi Naila,

This is great news. Obviously, there's a representational problem between the genders at work. Women need pay for their work.

as long as dark cults (aka "religions") preaching female inferiority and submission to men based on "god's will" are tolerated and even supported in societies it will be hard to see REAL change and progress.

We know the root causes, we know what we need to do and now is the time for action. Our laws have failed to keep current with the needs of society. Paternalism is still deeply entrenched. Weak laws and governments attract parasitic behaviour. Penny wise, pound foolish. Think long-term.

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