Domestic Labour and the Economy

Our Creative Residents share their thoughts in response to International Women’s Day 2024.

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD

In our contemporary world that equates work with freedom and income with protected rights, individual poverty is a death warrant.

Many define poverty not as an absence of wealth but rather an absence of opportunity – an absence faced most unfailingly by women.

It is a universal and timeless truth that women face significant obstacles to achieving economic participation equal to that of their male counterparts.

A significant proportion of gendered financial inequality can be ascribed to the uneven distribution of unpaid care work and domestic labour.

Across the globe, women on average dedicate significantly more time to unpaid domestic labour and care work than men. Economists classify this type of unpaid work as ‘household production,’ encompassing general household tasks, child raising, and caring for elderly or disabled family members.

On account of established gendered social norms that view unpaid domestic work as a female prerogative, the burden and responsibility of this labour is disproportionately shouldered by women across the globe.

This phenomenon does not discriminate. Even across diverse regions, socio-economic statuses and education levels, disparities in caring responsibilities persist – women are routinely ensnared in time-consuming unpaid domestic tasks in addition to their paid activities, generating a ‘double burden’ of work for women.

Persistent narratives praise men for ‘helping out’ at home and fathers for ‘babysitting’ their children, despite this work being a shared responsibility – that is his home and his child in the same way that they’re hers.

This highly feminised unpaid labour is the work that makes society and the economy tick. It is the foundation upon which official industries, services, economies, schools and universities sit. It is absolutely essential to the social and economic wellbeing of all within a society.

Despite the immense benefits to society, assuming a greater portion of this unpaid work comes saddled with numerous consequences and penalties for women.

The gender disparity in unpaid labour has significant implications for women’s ability to actively engage in the labour market, influencing both the nature and quality of employment opportunities accessible to them.

Unpaid care activities constitute a time and energy consuming occupation that restricts women’s access to the labour market, relegating them to lower income and insecure employment.

The difficulty to reconcile care work with paid employment can result in  ‘occupational downgrading,’ where women choose employment in a more vulnerable form – part-time or casual, for example. This work will often be unreflective of a woman’s ‘human capital,’ requiring lower abilities, education level, and work experience than she possesses.

A lingering stigma surrounds women who opt not to make this choice – they are shirking familial responsibilities, they are focused solely on wealth accumulation, they are selfish and immoral.

Exclusion from the formal full-time employment sector has numerous costs, primarily through a long term reduction in wages earnt and also superannuation contribution trajectories. As many superannuation systems across the globe are tied to paid work, this creates significant inequalities in retirement incomes for those who provide greater portions of unpaid care.

Diminished lifetime wages and superannuation contributions can often give rise to financial dependence in partnerships, particularly when children are involved. The consequences of this are abundant, particularly if a woman has lower levels of savings, work experience and education due to their unpaid care activities. This frequently fosters situations in which women are unable to leave a partner, and may become trapped in violent situations and relationships.

In order to solve these issues and increase women’s formal economic engagement, two forms of intervention must be implemented in tandem – state based and social based.

State intervention plays a crucial role in the redistribution of unpaid domestic work. A state’s failure to provide, regulate and fund formal domestic and care services exacerbates the burden for communities, families and particularly women. Greater access to childcare, care for the elderly, general public services, and stronger social protection are all key measures in alleviating women from excessive caring responsibilities.

Redistribution of unpaid domestic work is critical. In order to achieve this, we must reimagine and reconstruct our social dynamics and relationships, debasing hegemonic expectations and stereotypes associated with caring work.

The historically internalised female caregiver and male breadwinner model must be examined and confronted, allowing unpaid care work and paid labour to be distributed more evenly across household members regardless of gender.

The genesis of this work lies in each individual household, where actively striving to establish an equal partnership is essential. Both partners muse examine and acknowledge all forms of labour activities, encompassing routine (laundry, cooking etc.) intermittent (lawn mowing, bill paying etc.) and cognitive (remembering, planning, scheduling, organising and anticipating). This work can then be distributed more evenly, establishing clear expectations of both partners and holding these to account – the process of which should be equally monitored, not requiring more cognitive labour from one partner than another.

Changes to workplace culture, whether state mandated or internal, are also essential for achieving a balance between domestic responsibilities and paid working hours. Improved flexible working arrangements are necessary for all parents and household caretakers irrespective of gender, including flexible schedules, working from home arrangements, and long and equal maternity and paternity leave.

Implementing each of these measures is crucial for redistributing unpaid care work, a vital element in securing equal formal economic participation and, consequently, financial liberation for all women.

Women’s economic empowerment not only enhances individual ability to protect oneself and one’s rights, but also contributes to broader societal benefits such as poverty reduction, increased productivity, improved access to health and education, and the promotion of social equality. This interconnected impact underscores the consequence of fostering women’s equal economic participation for the overall advancement of communities and societies.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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