Unpaid work and gender stereotypes

In the first response in our New Frame, New Economy forum on women in the economy, Daniela Casale says care and household work must be given its due recognition.

Every available economic measure we have points to the continued relegation of women to the periphery of South Africa’s already broken economy. But if we want to fix that, it is to the invisible parts of our economy that we need to turn.

Economist Nthabiseng Moleko focuses on how women’s disadvantage in the economy is tied to disparities in the labour market. She correctly points out that women are less likely to participate in the labour force than men, less likely to find employment and when they do find work, it is more often in poorly paid, low-skilled jobs.

Moleko also describes the dismal macroeconomic position we find ourselves in and says that an alternative economic strategy is imperative if we are to create sufficient jobs to absorb the scores of unemployed women (and men) in the labour market.

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These problems have deepened amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for a different path forward has become all the more urgent.

I agree with all of these important points. However, any alternative way forward needs to recognise an important aspect of women’s contribution to the economy that Moleko makes only passing reference to: the unpaid care work women do.

Around the world, women spend large parts of their day in unpaid caring labour: caring for the home, children, the elderly, the sick and their communities. This work is largely overlooked and undervalued, certainly in mainstream economic theory and policy, and yet it is absolutely vital to the reproduction of labour for the paid economy and to the survival of any well-functioning society.

Paid vs unpaid work

While caring labour can have its own non-pecuniary rewards, it is often emotionally and physically taxing, and it is costly in terms of time and money. Survey data from around the world show that women continue to shoulder the bulk of this work, and it has implications for their wellbeing and standard of living. With only 24 hours in a day, housework and caring labour not only reduces the hours women can spend on leisure activities, it also reduces the time and energy women can allocate to their education and pursuing employment opportunities.

Data collected in the 2010 Time Use Survey indicated that among working-age adults in South Africa, women were spending on average two to three more hours a day on housework and care than men. The gap is much larger in households where a young child is present, and it persists even when both men and women are employed.

By confining people to their homes and shutting down schools, the Covid-19 lockdown raised the workload within households and brought the struggle between paid and unpaid work into sharp relief.

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The National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, which has been tracking time spent on childcare over the course of the pandemic in South Africa, showed that women have had to take on more of this additional care work than men. So, it is not surprising that twice as many women as men reported that looking after children during lockdown reduced their ability to go to work, to work the same number of hours as before or to search for work.

The difficult balancing act between paid and unpaid labour is particularly acute for women in the South African context. Many women looking after children are not married or living with the father of their child, and therefore cannot necessarily count on men’s support for income or with care work.

In fact, South Africa is one of the only countries where children are more likely to live with their mother or another female relative than with both parents. Put another way, nearly two in every three children in South Africa live without their father present in the household, and poverty rates among these children are much higher than among those whose father is resident.

Who will look after the kids?

The first step towards recognising the importance of unpaid work is to measure it and quantify its value. Attempts by feminist economists around the world to do exactly this have produced estimates of gross national income that are between 25% and 50% higher than if only paid work is included. To do this, however, requires data on time use. South Africa was a maverick among developing countries in this respect, with time use surveys conducted in both 2000 and 2010. But we are now sorely in need of an additional wave to capture longer-term trends in how women and men allocate their time.

We also need to go beyond measurement and ensure that all policy is evaluated through a gendered lens. There needs to be recognition that both paid and unpaid work can be affected by government policies, that the paid economy relies on the unpaid economy and vice versa, and that men’s and women’s roles are unevenly distributed across these two spheres.

As feminist economists have long warned, overlooking how gender roles shape our lives can lead to unintended or negative policy outcomes. For instance, attempts to draw women into the labour market through improved pay and employment opportunities might be stymied by women’s responsibilities in the home. “Who will look after the kids?” is a familiar refrain.

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Cuts in social spending, particularly on education, health and childcare services similar to those imposed by the National Treasury in this year’s budget, will place more pressure on women to pick up the slack. And given gendered living arrangements in South Africa, the knock-on effects for children will be dire.

As long as women remain the primary caregivers in society, gender inequalities in employment, pay and access to resources will persist. If policies are ever going to make a fundamental difference in the lives of women, they need to recognise the different socially ascribed roles men and women have assumed and the different constraints they face as a result.

Supporting women in their caregiving role through transfers such as the child support grant is crucial. There is now considerable evidence that these grants help reduce the depth of poverty among children and their caregivers, and lead to better health and education among children. But at R460 a month, the grant is well below even the food poverty line of R585. It is insufficient to raise a child, let alone their caregiver, out of poverty.  

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More substantive change will require policy that tackles the deep-seated structural constraints women face. Social norms around who should be responsible for domestic and care work in the home must be challenged. Men need to be encouraged to take joint responsibility for this work, and public messaging should focus on how to normalise this role from very early on in children’s lives.

But the responsibility for care work cannot fall only on the individual. There needs to be a much bigger public investment in care infrastructure, so that women (and men) with care responsibilities can enter the labour force if they choose to do so and be productive on the job.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of the social provisioning of care, and a number of countries, among them the United States, are starting to take this more seriously. Some will say South Africa can’t afford this. But if we don’t find a way to, every time we claim to care about gender equality we will simply be paying lip service to the cause.

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