Men as breadwinners and women as caregivers : the gender gap in Unpaid Care Work

While there has been significant progress in the last decades, gender inequality is still the status quo. Consequently, we might hardly think about this issue, considering that we had no choice but to adapt to the (unfair) rules of the game. Nevertheless, gender gaps should not be the norm, which is why it is important to constantly raise awareness about them.

On the International Women’s day 2021, the female staff of HEConomist highlighted some of the many problems that women still face. This editorial was powerful as it managed to create a clear snapshot of the multiple burdens women shoulder every day. For instance, it is not only that there is inequality in the workplace, but also at home with unpaid care work (UCW) and with imposed gender roles, to name a few issues.

This time, during the week of the International Day of the Girl Child, this article will focus precisely on UCW, an activity that is mostly done by women and girls around the world, in the form of caregiving services for the family, household work, or indirect care activities, such as fetching water, cooking, cleaning, etc., as well as volunteer work for other households (Dhar, 2019).

Pre-COVID estimates based on the time-use surveys of 75 countries available by 2018 show that women shoulder 76.2% of the UCW across the world. As seen in Figure 1, the gender gap in UCW is not limited to certain parts of the World, rather women’s contribution to UCW exceeds men’s across all regions and income groups. On average, women do 3.2 times more hours than men in UCW, that is 4 hours and 25 minutes versus 1 hour and 23 minutes (ILO, 2018). Post-COVID, data shows that both men and women increased their contribution in UCW, but that women are still the main caregivers, especially those related to childcare (Women, U.N., 2020).

Figure 1. Time spent daily in paid and unpaid job, by sex, region, and income group – latest survey estimates

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Among others, disparities between regions stem from the lack of basic infrastructure, appropriate regulations (e.g. maternal and paternal leave), and social services, such as affordable child care. For instance, without easily accessible sources, a single activity – such as fetching water – can take up to one hour and a half, on average.

Figure 2. Household water collectors in South Africa by sex and distance to water source – 2013

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Figures 1 and 2 provide very relevant insight into the nature of UCW : (1) For women that also engage in paid work, their total daily workload is larger than men’s and partly uncompensated, and (2) regardless of their employment status, some of the time invested in UCW is a response to the lack of public expenditure on care services and infrastructure (ILO, 2018). Therefore, UCW can be considered a direct transfer of women’s resources – in this case, time – for household members and society.

What is the value of such time? Based on the hourly minimum wage, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that UCW would amount to 9% of the global GDP, with women’s work representing 6.6% of this figure. But beyond market value, as time is a finite resource, the current UCW division creates time poverty for women, which can negatively impact women’s economic autonomy by influencing education and labor force participation decisions, as well as the time women can spend on leisure or self-care activities, which is an important component of health and well-being (Women, U.N., 2019).

For instance, UCW is recognized by women as the main reason why they are outside the labor force in low- and middle-income countries, while in high-income economies at least 20% of the women cite it as the main cause, whereas for men the main reason was “being in education, sick or disabled” (ILO, 2018).

Moreover, even if women are part of the labor force, UCW can constrain the hours they can spend in paid work, particularly when childcare is involved, creating a “motherhood employment penalty”, as noted by ILO (2018). These situations have other important ripple effects, fewer hours of paid work (or none) negatively affect future access to social protection and the possibility to accumulate other savings and assets (ILO, 2018). Beyond subsistence, these resources are valuable as they provide more autonomy over one’s life.

Data clearly shows that closing the gender gap in UCW is a shared responsibility between all actors of society. That is, we can all take decisive action for a fairer distribution of UCW within our households and private spheres, but UCW also needs to be addressed by public and institutional policies.

This approach is perfectly captured by the Target 5.4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), which aims to recognize and value unpaid and domestic work “through the provision of public services, infrastructure, and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate”.

The last part of the SDG’s target also recognizes the substantial heterogeneity between countries when it comes to UCW. Developed and developing nations face different constraints to relieve the burden of UCW for women, therefore programs and policies must be tailored to each context to enhance their effectiveness.

Data can help to identify the most pressing needs in each region. As shown before, while investments in infrastructure might be less of a concern in developed nations, their importance must not be overlooked in less-developed countries.

Moreover, data suggest that cultural norms need to be considered. The family model “men as breadwinners and women as caregivers” is still preferred in some regions – Eastern Europe, Asia, and South Africa –, with variations emerging between different age and education profiles, among other characteristics (ILO, 2018). Evidence of the prevalence of such gender norms can also be found in longitudinal surveys that include Latin American countries (Loveday, 2018). Therefore, where applicable, addressing gender roles is a crucial first step to promote a change within households and stop the intergenerational transfer of time poverty and its potential adverse consequences between mothers and girls.

The data presented above unequivocally shows that UCW is a significant constraint for girls and women across the world, but, the key takeaway from this article is that we can help to address this issue every day, within our actions in our households and work environment, with our support or promotion of data-based policies, and with our constant challenging of gender roles.

Alejandra Diaz Fuentes
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Dhar, D. (2019). Women’s unpaid care work has been unmeasured and undervalued for too long. Essays on Equality, The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, Kings College London.

International Labour Organization. (2018). Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work.

Women, U. N. (2018). Turning promises into action. Gender equality in the agenda for sustainable development 2030.

Women, U. N. (2020). Whose time to care: Unpaid care and domestic work during COVID-19.

Women, U. N. (2019). World Survey on the Role of Women in Development. Report of the Secretary General. Why Addressing Women’s Income and Time Poverty Matters for Sustainable Development.

Loveday, L. (2018). Unpaid care work – the burden on girls. Retrieved from: