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A woman’s work is never done

- Charlotte Matthews

The work that women do in households is largely overlooked, yet it is critical for a well-functioning society.

Women and work | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

While the issue of disparities in earnings between men and women is attracting considerable academic research and media attention, a quieter injustice is going largely unnoticed. That injustice is the amount of essential work in the economy that women are doing for no payment whatsoever. 

In 2000 and again in 2010, Stats SA conducted a survey on time use to see how different South Africans spend their time. The 2010 study found that women spent 2.2 times more time on average than men on household maintenance activities (housework, shopping) that are not valued in the System of National Accounts for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) purposes (non-SNA work). The amount of time dedicated to this activity was even higher for married women. In caring for other members of the family, which is another non-SNA activity, women spent more than three times as much time as men. 

Various studies have highlighted the gender disparity in sharing home responsibilities during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

“This work is largely overlooked and undervalued, certainly in mainstream economic theory and policy, and yet it is absolutely vital to the reproduction of labour for the paid economy and to the survival of any well-functioning society,” says Professor Daniela Casale of the School of Economics and Finance.

Malerato Mosiane, Chief Director of Labour Statistics at Stats SA, says that the organisation was planning to conduct this survey every four years, starting from 2016, but this did not happen due to budgetary constraints. Currently, there are no plans to repeat it. However, the UN and ILO are investigating alternative ways to get time-use statistics more cost-effectively.

Pricing the priceless 

Professor Imraan Valodia, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, says that the approach of mainstream economics is only to value something which has a price. If there is no trade in that item – such as home care – it will not be included in measures like GDP. 

He believes that it is important to account for this sector because if no value is put on it, it will continue to be ignored in policy decision-making. At present, if National Treasury has money to spend, it is more likely to invest it in the physical or infrastructure sector, rather than the social or unpaid labour sector. As a result, gender bias in the economy is reinforced. 

Unfortunately, Stats SA’s time-use surveys had no discernible effect on government policy. This underscores the importance of promoting gender economics as a field of study. As a result, the Faculty is planning to launch a postgraduate programme that will focus on the economics of gender. 

“Firstly, by studying the economics of gender, it creates more transparency in the economy,” says Valodia. “Looking at time use forces us to think about the economy in a more complete way. Secondly, placing this burden of unpaid work on women is a huge cost on the economy and is not the most efficient allocation of resources.” 

Towards a female basic income grant 

There are various ways to value this work. For example, by using median earnings in an economy or the cost of employing someone to do it. In all these calculations there would be gender bias as well, since women generally earn less than men. Broadly, it is estimated that the value of this unpaid work could add 25-50% to current estimates of GDP. 

Casale says that overlooking this feature of the economy could have negative outcomes. For example, it could stymie attempts to bring more women into employment because of the frequent argument of ‘who will look after the kids?’. Cuts in social spending, particularly on health, education and childcare support, would increase the burden on women. 

“As long as women remain the primary caregivers in society, inequalities in employment, pay and access to resources will persist,” she says.

Professor Uma Kollamparambil, Head of the School of Economics and Finance, says: “Black female-headed households are among the poorest in SA. This underscores the need for a means-tested female basic income grant that would account for the unpaid care work that a woman undertakes in her household. There is evidence that state transfers to a female member benefit the household more than similar transfers to a male member.”

A means-tested female basic income grant would address multiple issues, including mitigating the growing inequality in the subjective wellbeing of women in SA, helping to combat gender-based violence as well as contributing in the long run to address issues such as teenage pregnancy.

“Establishing this through empirical evidence, however, calls for investment in data collection by Stats SA,” concludes Kollamparambil.

More on this research

  • Charlotte Matthews is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.