In countries across the world, the ways in which men and women spend their time is unbalanced. Men spend more time working for money whereas women do the bulk of unpaid work – cooking, cleaning and child care. But does society pay when women’s work is unpaid?
In his Golden Globes acceptance speech last month, Ryan Gosling thanked his partner Eva Mendes for raising their daughter and helping her terminally ill brother whilst he had been filming, explaining “if she hadn’t have taken all that on…it would surely be someone else up here other than me today.”
This piece of his speech has been lauded as both horribly sexist and a feminist breakthrough by everyone who wants a piece of the pie. Either way, his words reflect something key in today’s society. Many people attribute a huge amount of credit to successful men, while very rarely recognise that most could not have got where they are without a woman doing upaid, and at times uncredited, work behind the scenes.
Feminism has long realised that women deserve equal pay for equal work. It hasn’t yet been achieved, but it’s long acknowledged. But what about the work that’s not paid? What about the five million women in the United States alone, who work over 95 hours a week for nothing? Or even working mothers who, it has been calculated, work almost 60 hours a week, on top of their waged-job. This unpaid work includes everyday, yet crucial, tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and child care.
Studies show that girls in the US, on average, do two hours a week of chores more than boys, but boys were 15 percent more likely to be paid for their chores. As Marxist feminist scholar and key member of the 1970s Wages for Housework movement Silvia Federici wrote in her book Wages Against Housework, the way housework is presented as a natural attribute of women devalues their work because it makes their demands personal, rather than professional.
Because housework is unwaged, women demanding respect and rights “are seen as nagging bitches, not workers in struggle.”
The women for whom the unequal burden of unpaid labour has arguably the most dire consequences, are not Eva Mendes, or middle-class housewives, but girls in parts of the developing world who take on caring responsibilities from a young age. In this case, it’s less about the economic cost of their labour, than the opportunities that they lose. For the hours a day a girl in India spends helping her mother cook and clean, she has to sacrifice something else, and that something else. And that something else is almost always education. Education is the greatest tool to lift women and girls, and by extension, whole communities, out of poverty. Yet 95 per cent of the poorest girls in Somalia have never been to school – because they are required to prioritise their role in the home.
There is concrete action that can be taken. Investment in girl’s education worldwide, as well as fixing the issues that make caring so much more difficult, such as limited access to water and healthcare, would allow women and girls in developing countries to gain control of their own time. On a worldwide scale, the size of the role the state takes in assisting parents makes a huge difference in the way the work is distributed in families, shifting much of the load from the mother.
There is increasing numbers of families that go against this pattern: stay-at-home fathers, separated parents who take it in turns to take the children, or families with same-gender parents. Of course, it isn’t true that fathers never contribute at home, nor that taking care of children and the household is necessarily ‘harder’ than the job of the breadwinner. But very often, the women may bear the brunt of the dirty work.
In the Western World, there’s a huge argument for changing legislation on maternity and paternity leave – the United States has the lowest parental leave of any developed nation and no government mandate for paid leave. Although the UK is more progressive, parental leave is still seen as a mother’s duty. In fact, there are campaigns urging the United Kingdom to follow Sweden’s example by paying parental leave for longer, paying a higher amount and allowing for more equal distribution of parental leave.
When a father is only allowed minimal paternity leave, like the two weeks he is allowed in the UK, it can set an immediate precedent that the mother is the primary caregiver, and reinforces the idea that childcare is a natural skill for women.
Parental leave is also intrinsically tied to wage inequality between women and men. Even if the law does allow unpaid parental leave to be shared between the parents, it’s highly likely that the man is the higher earner, and therefore, the family will give up more money if he takes time off work. Also, when parental leave is almost entirely placed on the mother, she is likely to encounter setbacks in her career, as a result of the time she takes off. Legislation that allows for the fair distribution of parental leave could make a significant impact on equal pay and women’s advancement in the workforce. The idea of a universal basic income, that would give every citizen a regular amount of money
regardless of their job status or earnings, could make a change to the degradation of women’s work. It would recognise their unpaid labour, and give them a salary of sorts for it.
And perhaps this opens up a wider question, as to why we link worth to monetary value. Why are male chefs lauded (and highly paid) for their work, but cooking in the home, which is primarily done by women, devalued? There are steps that the state can take to support mothers, but beyond that, we need cultural change. We need to challenge the norms and redefine how we value work. Women’s time is equally valuable to men not only in the workplace where they deserve equal pay, but also when it comes to unpaid labour.