What Women's Unpaid Work is Worth  

Marlyn Glen

25 March 2013

Two thirds of women in Britain of working age are in employment today.

A few generations before, many households were centred round the wife or mother who more often than not did not work in paid employment.

Their work within the home – domestic labour – was not regarded as “work” in the same vein as male industrial labour.

Since then, despite more and more women participating in paid employment outwith the home, the uneven distribution of household tasks between women and men holds fast.

The majority of domestic work , particularly with regards to childcare and care of the elderly , is still carried out by women.

This work is unpaid (“unwaged”)

In the media today , there is normally little discussion asking how much this entire domestic labour might be worth in the market. 

It seems that the last in-depth exercise was in 1997 by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

It estimated that if all unpaid work were paid at the same rate as average pay in Britain, it could be worth as much as £739 billion a year.

If, instead, the wage rate was taken as that for “nannies and childminders, cleaners, painters and decorators  for DIY work …amongst the lowest paid in the labour market", unpaid work would have been worth an annual £341 billion.

These were massive amounts in 1997, and their present day equivalents would be just as massive.

This unmeasured valuation of women’s (and men’s unpaid) work has implications for what we mean by “the economy”.

The Gross Domestic Product is the market value of the economically productive goods and services delivered annually in a country, and the GDP per head reflects the standard  of living in a country.

The UN System of National Accounts contains the international statistical criteria laid down for what are regarded as agreed economically productive activities that qualify for inclusion in GDP, foreign trade and government expenditure.

Feminist economists like Marilyn Waring have criticised these standards for not acknowledging the financial value of unpaid work primarily within the home , nor for unpaid voluntary care and community work.

Further criticism is made of activities surrounding military activities being regarded as  economically productive, but raising children is not.

Marilyn Waring’s belief has been summed up in this question :

“Why is a man’s ‘work’ sitting in a nuclear control room and staring at a red button all day considered economically productive while a woman’s work walking 10 miles to a well every morning to sustain her family and maintain her home counts for nothing?”

and by the comparison :

Preparing and cooking family meals at home has no economic “value” for the Gross Domestic Product because it is unpaid , but the same meal paid for in a restaurant does.

It is said that, while there is little prospect of unpaid domestic work being rewarded with money any day soon, it would be a step forward to see its cost recognised as part of the economy .

The argument for this runs :  If we want a better society, we need to focus on a quality of life beyond money and financial transactions, and look at a broader picture, such as the value of community work, cost of unemployment and underemployment, the cost of stress  and overwork, accidents, air and noise pollution, climate change, amongst others.

A three - lettered acronym does that  – The GPI – Genuine Progress Indicator – built on the view that improvements in the overall welfare of a country cannot be measured purely by an increase in money.

However, in austere times such as the present, getting people back to work , getting industries moving again increasing the number of jobs through growth  takes priority.

Nonetheless, the contribution of women’s unpaid work towards that priority are being made and, in some cases,  have already been made.

Their domestic work allows the waged workforce to be able to work and their child –rearing helps to raise the next generation of the work force.


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