Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution: Unpaid Care Work and Greater Economic Inclusion for Women

From Sept 30-Oct 1, the SEEP Network hosted its 2015 Annual Conference in Arlington, VA. For those that are not familiar, the SEEP network is “a global network of international practitioner organizations dedicated to combating poverty through promoting inclusive markets and financial systems.” This year’s technical topics followed four tracks: Financial Services and Technology to Promote Resilience, Private Sector Partnership Models, Small-scale Producers in Resilient Agricultural Systems, and Women's Economic Empowerment.

Ghana7Among the many great discussions and presentations was a plenary session on Thursday, Oct. 1 entitled Beyond Access: Catalyzing Women’s Economic Empowerment in Market Systems, which had as one of its panelist Caren Grown, World Bank Group Senior Director for Gender. Caren brilliantly opened the session with a great introduction to women’s empowerment and why it should be a focus for development. In her remarks, she cited a recent McKinsey report estimating that if women could participate in the economy in the exact same way that men do (i.e., complete economic parity), it would add up to $28 trillion to the annual global GDP. In other words, this would add to the global economy roughly the economies of the US and China combined. (1)

This is a staggering statistic and taken at face value, I think it says a lot about women, work, and gender parity. But to me it seems to imply that women are not currently productive, and that if only they were productive, that is to say, in the formal economy, national economic productivity would increase exponentially. The danger in this assumption is that economic development efforts targeting women will then seek to direct them into tradition, paid work situations that may add to their overall work burden. In my work in Ghana, I’ve been told by men that women have nothing to do during the dry season. This is it not the case by any stretch of the imagination, but the perception is there because the work that women do is not thought of, measured, and quantified in terms that men (and national statistics) are accustomed to understanding. So the statistic above begs a question, if we put the women of the world into formal employment on a larger scale, what are we taking them away from and is this the answer?

So I did some digging and here’s what I found. The fact of the matter is the work that women do perform is largely informal and not quantifiable by the indices that measure economic activity. In development jargon this is known as unpaid care economy and includes taking care of children and the elderly, cooking, cleaning, and other household responsibilities and women shoulder a disproportionate amount of this unpaid care work in every country. If we account for this unpaid care work in additional to formal employment, women work 3 times as many hours as men, and in some places, like India and Pakistan, women work up to 10 times as many hours on average globally. For those that do try and quantify unpaid care work, studies estimate that this work could amount to between 15-50% of a country’s GDP. (2) Women’s unpaid care work is often not included in national economic statistics, in part because it can be difficult to measure though not impossible; the lack of information is a reflection of how undervalued this type of work is in many societies – and by extension the women who do it.

Statistics, like the former, may provide a compelling rationale for why we should focus on greater economic inclusion for women, as Caren Grown was highlighting in her panel discussion. But it misses a larger discussion about how we do that. If we could redirect women from unpaid care work into formal economic activity it would be a great benefit to the economy, but at what cost to society in general? In reality, attempts to include women in formal economic activity often doesn’t redirect them away from unpaid care work, but rather adds an additional burden on their time. This added strain on women’s time does, however, redirect them away from greater educational attendance or political participation. This also assumes that women want to be working formally in the first place. So for those that work for greater gender equality, how do we balance greater economic inclusion for women and unpaid care work?

Professor Diane Elson has posited an answer. At a UNDP meeting on Unpaid Work, Economic Development and Human Well-being, she presented her recognition, reduction and redistribution model as a way of incorporating the issue of unpaid care work into development initiatives. (3) In summary:DSCN0965

  • Recognition – acknowledgment of women’s unpaid care work women as economically important work. Recognition of unpaid care work can also add social value to this work and reduce the socio-cultural stigma attached for those that do it. Creating recognition would mean creating indices to capture this data that could in turn be used to create better services to support women.
  • Reduction – the development of infrastructure, targeted services, and the use of technology to reduce the burden of unpaid care work for women. This allows women and girls to participate more fully in educational, economic, and political activities.
  • Redistribution – while it may not be possible to reduce the overall amount of care work, efforts can be made to more fairly distribute the amount of work done by women, this includes redistribution among men, women, households, markets, the state and civil society organizations.

It may be coming clear how gender equality in society is linked to gender equality in the work place. In fact, the McKinsey report shows definitively how the cultural attitudes and beliefs about women affect work place dynamics with no country in the world having greater gender equality in work than it does in society. This means that economic develop can help close gender gaps, but that any discussion on women’s economic inclusion needs to take into account unpaid care work if it is to accurately describe the economic condition of women. Moreover, for development initiatives aimed at greater economic inclusion for women, there needs to be an understanding of the barriers that are created by unpaid care work and how the intervention strategy will address these if the initiative is to be successful.


(1) “The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth”, McKinsey Global Institute, Sept 2015.
(2) Jessica Woodroffe and Kate Donald, “Unpaid Care: A Priority for the Post-2015 Development Goals and Beyond”, Gender and Development Network, July2014.
(3) Elson, Diane. 2008 "'The Three R's of Unpaid Work: Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution, Presented at the Expert Group Meeting on Unpaid Work, Economic Development and Human Well-Being, United Nations Development Programme.
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