Valuing mothers' contributions to the global economy

A mother with her child in Tonga. Despite being revered worldwide, mothers remain sidelined in the economy. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Motherhood is revered the world over, put on a pedestal and seen as the spring well of love and altruism in a “heartless world.”

Yesterday, in more than 80 countries around the world, girls and boys, and women and men, remembered the “labor of love” that went into making them who they are. Yet ironically, not only is this unpaid care work — whether performed by mothers or, less frequently, fathers — invisible in our accounts of the economy (which put the gross domestic product on a pedestal), it is also poorly supported by how we allocate our public resources. We continue to build motorways and dams while we underinvest in accessible water and sanitation facilities that would reduce the drudgery of domestic and care work. In sub-Saharan Africa, 71 percent of the burden of collecting water for household use is taken on by women and girls.

As U.N. Women’s report, “Progress of the World’s Women,” documents, globally women do two and a half times more unpaid care and domestic work as men, even as they have taken on a growing share of paid work. When paid and unpaid work is combined, in most countries, women work longer hours than men, which means less time for rest and leisure.

If women stopped doing the day-to-day nurturing and caring — making sure that their children turn up in school prepared for learning and creativity — there would be no labor force to speak of, no workers and taxpayers in the next generation, and the global economy would grind to a halt.

The total value of unpaid care and domestic work is estimated to be 39 percent of GDP in India, 35 percent in Tanzania and 31 percent in Nicaragua. The numbers are equally astounding in the high-income countries: In the United States, the total value of unpaid child care services alone was estimated to be 20 percent of the GDP in 2012.

Given this staggering contribution to our economies and societies, one would think that women would be rewarded for juggling their paid and unpaid work. As the infographic shows, the opposite is true. Globally, women are paid 24 percent less than men. Women tend to be clustered into a narrow set of low paid occupations — growing food, cooking, making clothes and taking care of people — jobs defined as lower status and lower skilled precisely because they mirror the work that women do in their homes (and skills they acquire in the home).

And when they become mothers, women are penalized even further: In a range of countries, when it comes to pay, there is a “motherhood penalty,” which results in even wider gender inequalities. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the presence of children in the household is associated with gender pay gaps of 31 percent and 35 percent, respectively, compared with 4 percent and 14 percent for women living in households without children. To be sure, this is not just a developing country phenomenon: In the United States, for example, unmarried women earn 96 cents to an unmarried man’s dollar, but married women with at least one child earn 76 cents to the married father’s dollar.

Women’s lower earnings and higher rates of informal work compared with men translate into huge cumulative income gaps over their lifetimes. In Turkey, for example, women can expect to earn 75 percent less than men over their lifetimes. The fact that women often interrupt their paid work — to bear and raise children or care for other family members or friends — also has implications for their income security in old age. In most countries, women are less able to make pension contributions, and less likely to receive an old-age pension than men, which means higher rates of poverty in older age. Even in the EU, where pension coverage is extensive, older women are 37 percent more likely to live in poverty than older men.

So how can societies support the unpaid care work that is so fundamental to both human well-being and economic sustainability? It is sometimes argued that husbands, or the state, should pay “wages for housework” — a problematic proposition that would only serve to reinforce the stereotype that care and domestic work are women’s work — while stifling women’s aspirations for economic independence and public participation.

By contrast, as “Progress of the World’s Women” shows, countries, both rich and poor, can and are adopting a range of measures to support unpaid care work: investments in essential public services like accessible water and sanitation, affordable and quality child care services, decent wages so both fathers and mothers can spend more time with their children, and paid parental leave, among others.

The devil of course is in the detail; a real challenge is to make such measures available to all women (and men) who want to avail of them, and to maintain their funding through strong public support. Sustained over time, not only are these measures effective in supporting the care work that is the rock-bottom foundation of any dynamic economy, they also give women a real choice in combining motherhood with professional aspirations and economic security.

Now that would be a Mother’s Day really worth celebrating.

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About the author

  • Shahra Razavi

    Shahra Razavi joined U.N. Women as chief of research and data in June 2013. She specializes in the gender dimensions of social development, with a particular focus on livelihoods and social policies. Shahra was research coordinator at UNRISD from 1993 to 2013 where she led the institute’s research projects on gender.