When we think of the gender gap our minds tend to leap to wage packets and glass ceilings. But for women and girls the gender gap may be better illustrated by the long and often dangerous daily walks to fetch water, the countless hours they spend caring for others, cooking and cleaning. All these invisible tasks traditionally belong to them but are neither counted nor valued.
Care work is the ‘hidden engine’ that keeps the wheels of our economies, businesses and societies turning. And it is driven by women and girls who, with little or no time to get an education, earn a decent living, be involved in their communities or have a say in how our societies are run, are trapped at the bottom of the economy.
The most valuable industry in the world
Care work is central to human and social wellbeing. It includes looking after children, the elderly, and those with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities, as well as daily domestic work like cooking, cleaning, washing, mending, and fetching water and firewood.
Without someone investing time, effort and resources in these essential daily tasks, communities, workplaces, and whole economies would grind to a halt.
Across the world care work is disproportionately falling on women and girls, especially women and girls living in poverty and from marginalized groups.
While much of this work is done for free at home or in the community, women and girls working as cleaners, or in care services like healthcare or childcare often do so for poverty wages.
A heavy and unequal responsibility
Women and girls undertake more than three-quarters of unpaid care work in the world and make up two-thirds of the paid care workforce.
They carry out 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day. When valued at minimum wage this would represent a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry.
In low-income countries, women in rural areas spend up to 14 hours a day doing unpaid care work.
Across the globe, 42 percent of women cannot get jobs because they are responsible for all the caregiving, compared to just six percent of men.
80 percent of the world’s 67 million domestic workers are women — 90 percent don’t have access to social security, and more than half have no limits on their weekly working hours.
Unrecognized, invisible, unfairly paid
Even though it lays the foundation for a thriving society, unpaid and underpaid care work is fundamentally invisible. It is radically undervalued and taken as a given by governments and businesses. It is often treated as ‘non-work’, with spending on it treated as a cost rather than an investment.
It undermines the health and well-being of women and girls and limits their economic prosperity by fueling gender gaps in employment and wages. It also leaves them time-poor, unable to meet their basic needs or to participate in social and political activities.
Unpaid and underpaid care work perpetuates gender and economic inequalities. It is fueling a sexist economic system that has accumulated vast wealth and power into the hands of a rich few, in part by exploiting the labour of women and girls, and systematically violating their rights.
Valuing care and wellbeing above profit and wealth
Women everywhere, in particular the poorest women, contribute massively to the economy and society through the essential care work they provide. Yet, our broken economic system values the wealth of the privileged few, mostly men, more than the billions of hours women and girls are putting in every day for free, and countless more for poverty wages.
Governments must prioritize care as being as important as all other sectors in order to build more human economies that work for everyone, not just a fortunate few.
They must ensure corporations and the richest are fairly taxed and invest this money in public services and infrastructure, which would help free up women’s time, empowering them to engage in activities outside of the home and lift themselves out of poverty.