Women’s invisible work: Public strategies that are explicitly oriented towards reducing and redistributing unpaid work will do more than just help the women in the economy.

Invisible work


Public strategies that are explicitly oriented towards reducing and redistributing unpaid work will do more than just help the women in the economy.


A woman and her daughters collecting firewood on the outskirts of Berhampur in Orissa. Subsistence work done by women is not counted as an economic activity.  

WORK defines the conditions of human existence in many ways. This may be even more relevant for women than for men because the responsibility for social reproduction – which largely devolves upon women in most societies – ensures that the vast majority of women are inevitably involved in some kind of productive and/or reproductive activity.

Despite this, in mainstream discussion, the importance of women’s work generally receives marginal treatment simply because so much of the work they regularly perform is “invisible” in terms of market criteria or even in terms of socially dominant perceptions of what constitutes “work”. This leads to the social underestimation of women’s productive contribution and also means that inadequate attention is typically devoted to the conditions of women’s work and their implications for the general material conditions and well-being of women.

This is particularly true in developing countries, where patterns of market integration and the relatively high proportion of goods and services that are not marketed have implied that women’s contributions to productive activity extend well beyond those that are socially recognised and that the conditions under which many of these contributions are made entail significant pressure on women in a variety of ways.

In almost all societies, and particularly in developing countries, there remain essential but usually unpaid activities (such as housework and child care and community-based activities) that are seen as the responsibility of the women of the household. This social allocation tends to operate regardless of other work that women may perform.

For working women in lower-income groups, it is particularly difficult to find outside labour to substitute for household-based tasks, which therefore tend to devolve upon the young girls and aged women within the household or to put further pressure on the workload of the women workers themselves. In fact, it is wrong to assume that unpaid tasks by women would continue regardless of the way resources and incomes are allocated. “Gender neutral” economic policies may thus result in possible breaking points within the household or the collapse of women’s capacity.

Social provision for at least a significant part of such services and tasks or changes in the gender-wise division of labour with respect to household tasks, therefore, become important considerations when women are otherwise employed.

The relative invisibility of much of women’s work is now more widely recognised. Since many of the activities associated with household maintenance, provisioning and reproduction are not subject to explicit market relations, there is an inherent tendency to ignore the actual productive contribution of these activities. Similarly, social norms, values and perceptions also operate to render most household-based activity “invisible”. This invisibility gets directly transferred to data inadequacies, making officially generated data in most countries (and particularly in developing countries) very rough and imprecise indicators of the actual productive contribution of women.

Inaccurate data


CHILDREN IN A Khasi village in Meghalaya helping to grind paddy. The Khasis are matriarchal, and apart from other outside work, all the household work is done by women.  

This means that the data on the participation of women in the labour force are notoriously inaccurate. Not only are the problems of undercounting and invisibility rife, but there are often substantial variations in data across countries, which may not reflect actual differences but may simply be a result of distinct methods of estimation. Further, even statistics over time for the same country may alter dramatically as a result of changed definitions of what constitutes “economically active” or because of more probing questions put to women or simply because of greater sensitivity on the part of the investigators.

The impact of social structures is reflected not merely in the data but in the actual determination of explicit labour market participation by women. Thus, in certain regions of India, social norms determine the choice between participation in production and involvement in reproduction and consequently inhibit the freedom of women to participate in the job market or engage in other forms of overt self-employment. The limitations on such freedom can take many forms. While the explicit social rules of some societies limit women’s access to many areas of public life, the implicit pressures in other supposedly more emancipated societies may operate no less forcefully to direct women into certain prescribed occupational channels.

All this is why the new book on unpaid work, Unpaid Work and the Economy: Gender, Time-use and Poverty in Developing Countries (edited by Rania Antonopoulos and Indira Hirway; Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), is so important.

The book combines methodological, theoretical, technical, empirical and policy-oriented discussion on this issue, which has been so understudied by economists and other social scientists. It raises two critical sets of questions: How does unpaid work affect the outcomes of the economy, and how does the paid economy impact the unpaid economy? How can the recognition of unpaid work be used to integrate it with development strategy? The first chapter, by the editors, provides an excellent introduction to the conceptual and empirical issues involved and shows the link to macroeconomic processes. Unpaid work can be seen as a subsidy to state provisioning or to private agents operating in markets, and either of these “externalities” are actually manifestations of a structural system that uses gender constructions to be exploitative and generate significant inequalities in time-use.

Vicious circle

Several other chapters in the book provide evidence based on time-use studies in various countries, ranging from Bolivia and South Africa to India and the Philippines. The evidence provided suggests clearly that most unpaid work is performed by women who are trapped in a vicious circle of drudgery and poverty and is driven not only by economic circumstances but by the availability of physical and social infrastructure. This underscores the importance of providing quality public services (especially in health, sanitation, child care, and so on) and infrastructure, of technological advances in typically unpaid activities that are time consuming and demanding, and of greater attention to the management and regeneration of natural resources.

This book makes the important point that while better statistics and data collection methods are essential they are not enough, and the recognition of unpaid work should not remain confined to giving it greater visibility by “counting” it. Rather, the point is, through knowing and interpreting the reality, one has to change it. So first of all, one must recognise the various categories of unpaid work in relation to production processes and daily fulfilment of basic needs. Four categories are defined in the book: unpaid work of family workers in family enterprises; subsistence work (such as collection of fuelwood and water for the household); unpaid household work such as cleaning and washing; and care of the other members of the household, including children, the old and the sick.

This then allows for a better understanding of how the conditions under which this work is performed hinders the integration of people’s labouring capabilities with desired development strategies. It is obvious that unpaid work requires both reduction overall (through more and better public provision, better infrastructure and technological changes) and redistribution to ensure more equitable burden, especially across gender. But the different categories of unpaid work may need to be addressed differently in terms of required policy responses. Thus, some forms of subsistence unpaid work would definitely be reduced through more and better public provision, especially of basic utilities and services. But reductions in unpaid care activities require a more careful and sensitive approach, such that public provision is made with sufficient resources and in a way that does not impede early childhood development or the adequate care of the aged and the sick.

The issue of unpaid work is often seen as a “gender” issue, and indeed, because of the way that it is distributed in most societies, it is certainly so. But the contribution of this book is to show that it is much more than that and is actually fundamentally a development issue. Public strategies that are explicitly oriented towards reducing and redistributing unpaid work will do more than help the women in the economy; they will make economic processes overall more stable, sustainable and productive.

From: http://www.frontline.in/navigation/?type=static&page=flonnet&rdurl=fl2703/stories/20100212270308100.htm

Volume 27 – Issue 03 :: Jan. 30-Feb. 12, 2010

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