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Women’s Unpaid Work and the American Economy

By Damla Onder

Economically, we do not value our women: “Women have always worked. They have worked unpaid, underpaid, underappreciated, and invisibly, but they have always worked… We have to start recognizing that the work women do is not an added extra, a bonus that we could do without: women’s work, paid and unpaid, is the backbone of our society and our economy. It’s about time we started valuing it” (142), Caroline Criado Perez states in “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.”

To understand how women and their work influence the economy, we need to understand what gross domestic product is and how it is used. The concept of gross domestic product (GDP) was developed around 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, by Simon Kuznets. GDP is a tool used to measure the economy through the total value of goods and services a country produces in a year — it is a metric that provides information about the strength and size of the economy. While GDP is used to help rebuild, develop, understand and analyze economies, it devalues (one could even say completely ignores) a large component: unpaid work in the house.  

Unpaid work usually consists of cleaning, cooking, taking care of children and elderly family members, running errands, looking after those who are ill, etc. Throughout history up to the present day, unpaid work tends to fall more on one demographic: women.

Looking at labor statistics can highlight and quantify economic disparities across gender:

Source: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Employment: Time spent in paid and unpaid labor, by sex”

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), today in America, women spend approximately 4.5 hours per day in unpaid work while men spend only approximately 2.78 hours. On the other hand, for paid work, women spend 4.1 hours while men spend 5.5 hours. In total, women spend more hours working in a day (8.6 hours) compared to men (8.29 hours). The big difference, however, is that men are more likely to be compensated for their work and women are not. This wage disparity is highlighted in a Pew Research Center (PRC) study using data from the U.S. Census Bereau. Based on their data, in 2019, women with full-time careers earned 82% of their male equivalents. There are a number of factors that lead to a gender wage gap, one of the most influential being motherhood. Due to the social responsibility of women being the primary caregivers, their data shows that mothers are more likely to reduce their paid work hours, turn down promotions, be seen as uncommited to their careers, etc. This then creates a domino effect in which women start to pick up more of the unpaid labor at home while the fathers comfortably continue their work. 

Putting a monetary value on these statistics can further highlight how unpaid work influences the economy. A global organization called Oxfam created a method to calculate the monetary value by multiplying the number of women (above the age of 15) with the number of hours spent on unpaid labor on average per year. With the total number of hours, they multiplied it by the national minimum wage of the country. Using Oxfam’s method of calculating the value of women’s unpaid labor on a global level, Gus Wezerek and Kristen R. Ghodsee concluded that, in America, if women were compensated for their unpaid work with minimum wage, they would have made $1.5 trillion dollars in 2019. For reference, that is almost 130 times more than Amazon’s net income in 2019 ($11.588 billion). Yet their unpaid work remain unrecognized when it comes to calculating GDP.

In addition to unpaid labor’s monetary value and its drastic influence on our economy if it was recognized and appreciated, the social pressure for women to take unpaid labor also has the power to pull down women’s participation rate in the labor market. In 2017, Sandra Tzvetkova and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina investigated which factors determined women’s participation rate in the labor force, identifying unpaid labor as the most influential. Both authors emphasized that an individual requires both time and opportunity in order to be a part of the labor market; the social responsibility imposed on women completing unpaid work takes both of those away, thus lowering their participation rate in the labor market.  

But what does women’s participation rate in the labor market mean in terms of GDP?

A nation’s GDP grows with its labor force and their productivity, meaning that as the participation rate in the labor force increases, so does productivity, ultimately leading to economic development. To understand the connection between labor force participation rates and economic productivity, Amanda Weinstein uses models to analyze Census data in 250 metropolitan areas in America. In her research results, Weinstein found that when labor force participation rates for women increase, the metropolitan areas become more economically productive and wages increase overall. While there is obviously a number of influences that can affect GDP growth, Weinstein emphasizes that as more women are hired into the labor market, firms become more competitive and inclusive as their teams are more representative, and thus more knowledgeable, of the consumer market and their needs. 

As proven in the calculated net worth of women’s unpaid work and their influence when they enter the labor force, women hold unrecognized power in the economy. More women would be considered participating in the labor force if their unpaid labor was recognized as labor. By allowing women to play a part in all industries, we could minimize, and hopefully destroy, the economic disparity between men and women. Yes, GDP will grow, and our economy will have a better chance to develop. However,  it is just as important, if not more, that women will have a chance at economic freedom and to choose how to spend their time. On top of that, their contribution will solve the world’s problems more efficiently and accurately. At the end of the day, allowing women to have more opportunities in the labor force is a win-win situation for everyone.

If unpaid labor is not recognized as an important factor of GDP growth and women remain uncompensated for the work they do, its responsibilities then must be redistributed so that women have the chance to participate in work that provides them the economic stability needed to survive in this world. This is obviously easier said than done: to redistribute unpaid labor, we need to, first, acknowledge the social pressure for women to take unpaid labor. Then we can start trying to shift investment and implement policies toward sectors (e.g. education, childcare, healthcare, etc.) that could help with the responsibilities that unpaid work consists of.

Caroline Criado Perez was right: women’s work is the backbone of our economy. It’s now time that we recognize their labor and compensate their work. □


Barroso, Amanda, Brown, Anna. (2021, May 25). Gender pay gap in U.S. held steady in 2020. Pew Research Center.,Census%20Bureau’s%20most%20recent%20analysis.

Employment: Time spend in paid and unpaid work, by sex. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Extracted 28 July 2022.[2]

Ghodsee, Kristen R., Wezerek, Gus. (2020, March 5). Women’s Unpaid Labor is Worth $10,900,000,000,000. New York Times.

Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban, Tzvetkova, Sandra. (2017, October 16). Working women: What determines female labor force participation? Our World in Data.

Peterson, Douglas L., Powers, Tara. (2019, September 1). Women as Drivers of Economic Growth. S&P Global.

Vanham, Peter. (2021, December 13). A Brief History of GDP – and what could come next. World

Economic Forum.,US%2Downed%20facilities%20abroad
Weinstein, Amanda. (2018, January 31). When More Women Join the Workforce, Wages Rise — Including for Men. Harvard Business Review.,that%20remain%20in%20the%20market

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