Cleaning the house and taking care of children has real economic value, and women have been doing it for free for too long. Women’s shift into paid employment in the 20th century was one of the great economic transformations in recent history.
In the US, this transition started in the early 1960s, when just over four in 10 American women went out to work, and continued until 1997, when the proportion reached just over six in 10. The shift was even more pronounced in some other Western economies. Women’s employment rate stabilised in the US but has continued to increase elsewhere, reaching nearly seven in 10 in the other major world economies. But while the growth in consumer spending thanks to working women is well documented, there is another part of this story that has been ignored by economists: the persistence of unpaid work done by women. Even as more women have gone out to work over time, they have continued to do the “second shift.”
Women take on more of the domestic labour and volunteering in the community than men, and they have less leisure time. In fact, women who work in paid jobs outside the home spend more time each week on chores at home than do men who do not go out to work.
Economists have long acknowledged that gross domestic product — the most widely accepted measure of economic progress — excludes all of this work, which is vital to the functioning of the global economy. But this huge gap has rarely seemed important in the heavily male-dominated profession of economics.
That is finally beginning to change. The question of what counts in “the economy” is no longer posed only by feminist scholars; it is being examined by economists in general, including those who define the statistics used to measure growth.
Women seem to be disproportionately bearing the extra burden. In addition to their doing more of the unpaid work at home, their economically valuable work outside the home is suffering, as they are forced to substitute unpaid work for paid work — reversing a decades-long trend. Women have been the main providers of childcare while schools have been closed, and mothers working from home are almost twice as likely as men to have reduced their working hours, with the biggest decline in hours found among college-educated women. At the same time, women are losing ground in paid employment. The sectors of the economy that are most affected by the pandemic, such as retail and hospitality, disproportionately employ women.
In the US, the unemployment rate for women has risen by nearly three percentage points more than men’s; in Britain, mothers are more likely than fathers to have lost or quit their jobs. It is not just women who are being harder hit; the US unemployment rate is significantly higher for Hispanic and African-American people than it is for whites. Introducing a universal basic income — usually defined as a guaranteed income provided by the government for every adult and child — would also be a recognition of the value of the essential unpaid work that everyone does, even those who are not part of the “paid” economy.
Coyle is a professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge. NYT© 2020
The New York Times