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Women's Economic Contributions

Pouring water into pot


Woman cooking soup
Women & Unpaid Work
Related section>> Women & Unpaid Work in Manitoba

Unpaid work is perhaps the biggest contribution that women make to the economy. In Canada unpaid work is estimated to be worth up to $319 billion in the money economy or 41% of GDP; globally the numbers skyrocket to $11 trillion US. Most unpaid work in Canada and around the world is performed by women.

Jump ahead to:

Two unpaid working women
Let's meet two "typical" women:

Tendai Cathy
Consider Tendai, a young girl in the Lowveld, in Zimbabwe. Her day starts at 4 a.m. when, to fetch water, she carriers a thirty litre tin to a borehole about eleven kilometres from her home. She walks barefoot and is home by 9 a.m. She eats a little and proceeds to fetch firewood until midday. She cleans the utensils from the family's morning meal and sits preparing a lunch of sadza for the family. After lunch and the cleaning of the dishes, she wanders in the hot sun until early evening, fetching wild vegetables for supper before making the evening trip for water. Her day ends at 9 p.m., after she has prepared supper and put her younger brothers and sisters to sleep. Tendai is considered unproductive, unoccupied, and economically inactive. According to the international economic system, Tendai does not work and is not part of the labour force.

- Marilyn Waring
Cathy, a young, middle-class North American housewife, spends her days preparing food, setting the table, serving meals, clearing food and dishes from the table, washing dishes, dressing her children, disciplining children, taking the children to day-care or school, disposing of garbage, dusting, gathering clothes for washing, doing the laundry, going to the gas station and the supermarket, repairing household items, ironing, keeping an eye on or playing with the children, making beds, paying bills, caring for pets and plants, putting away toys, books, and clothes, sewing or mending or knitting, talking with door-to-door salespeople, answering the telephone, vacuuming, sweeping and washing floors, cutting the grass, weeding and shovelling snow, cleaning the bathroom and the kitchen, and putting her children to bed. Cathy has to face that fact that she fills her time in a totally unproductive manner. She…is economically inactive, and economists record her as unoccupied.

- Marilyn Waring

Niger, AfricaThe unpaid work that Tendai and Cathy perform for their households and families is absolutely necessary for the functioning of the rest of society. Indeed our monetary economy is dependant on women's reproductive and care-giving work for the health, well-being and indeed the very existence of the paid work force. The economy also relies heavily on women to pick up the slack which the paid economy ignores - nursing elderly people, tutoring, child care, and supporting new immigrants. Unpaid work is as much a part of the monetary economy as paid work. Yet precisely because it is unpaid, unpaid work has long been overlooked and undermined in economic equations. Sometimes we ourselves even forget that unpaid work is actually work. (See Julie's Story.)

What is unpaid work?
Society holds to certain assumptions about what constitutes 'work.' For example:

  • Work is something you have to do - it's drudgery, not pleasure.
  • Work is what happens during the work day from 9 am to 5 pm.
  • Work is work when you're paid to do it.
  • Work is what happens outside the home.

    Many of these assumptions about what work is do not fit with the reality of women's lives. Much of women's work is not structured into workdays but instead intermingled with socializing and play. Many women do many things simultaneously and sometimes have trouble naming which is work and which isn't as not all the work is drudgery. Some work, like playing with children, breastfeeding a baby, or tending a garden, can actually be quite enjoyable. As well, much of women's work happens inside the home and much of it is unpaid.

    Statistics Canada divides unpaid work into three categories: house and yard work, care of children, and care and assistance to seniors. Volunteer work with community or charity organizations is not included. While this definition is limited, it is a significant first step in measuring and recognizing women's unpaid work.


    Woman at sinkMeasuring Unpaid Work
    Because women's unpaid work has no dollar value attached to it, it took many years for governments to even measure the hours dedicated to unpaid work. Because of this, much of women's activities were not taken into account in the development of laws and policies. This omission exacerbated existing inequalities. Measuring unpaid work was one of the major challenges to governments that came out of the UN Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985 as well as the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The Platform for Action that developed out of Beijing calls for national and international statistical organizations to measure unpaid work and reflect its value in satellite accounts to the GDP.1

    In Canada, the 1996 Census was the first to collect data on unpaid work, marking a major breakthrough for feminists across the country and providing an example for other countries around the world. What do the statistics tell us? Women and men in Canada have similar total workloads but men spend most of their time, 4.5 hours a day, in paid work and 2.7 hours in unpaid work. For women, the statistics are reversed with 2.8 hours in paid work and 4.4 hours in unpaid work.2
    Statistics Canada, after the 2006 census, reported that on average, “Women spend about an hour a day more on basic housework chores than their male counterparts. In 2005, women aged 25 to 54 averaged 2.4 hours daily cooking, cleaning and doing other basic unpaid household chores, compared with 1.4 hours per day for men in this age range.” Women perform 2/3 of the 25 billion hours of unpaid work Canadians perform every year3 and on average women spend twice as much time (2/3) on unpaid work as on paid work (1/3). To see the statistics for women and men in Manitoba visit Unpaid Work in Manitoba.

    In the summer of 2010, Stephen Harper cut the mandatory long form census all together and proposed it be replaced by the $30 million dollar voluntary National Household Survey. Question 33, or the long fought for question about unpaid work, was removed from the NHS. Many organizations and individuals in Canada are vocal about their opposition to the scrapping of the long form census and are providing analysis of it’s importance nationally and globally. To read updates about the status about the long form census and the groups supporting it’s reinstatement, see datalibre.ca or Save the Census.

    Globally many countries are adopting time-use surveys to measure unpaid work. Japan, Australia, Mali, Morocco, South Africa, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Palestine, Cuba, Ecuador, and many European countries have designed or undertaken surveys while many other countries have expressed interest.4

    For more on measuring unpaid work visit Alternative Economic Measures and Valuing Unpaid Work.


    Baking muffinsHazards of Unpaid Work
    The lack of remuneration for much of women's work has a direct relationship to women's economic security. When women are spending their time on unpaid work, they are not doing paid work. Because only the latter is remunerated, women's earning potential decreases dramatically. The lack of recognition of unpaid work is a chief contributor to women's higher rates of poverty in Canada and around the world.

    Because unpaid work is unpaid, many women must try to fit in paid work around it creating increasingly stressful lives. One Canadian study showed that 38% of working mothers are severely time stressed, averaging 74 hours of paid and unpaid work each week.5 The situation for single mothers is particularly difficult as they are unable to rely on another partner to bring in an income. UNPAC's sister organization, the Brandon Women's Centre, published a report called "No Time Left for Me: A Reality Check on the Impact of Government Policy on Women's Caregiving Work" highlighting the experiences of single moms.

    Because most unpaid work takes place in the home, women who do primarily unpaid work can be isolated and at greater risk of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. Women who do many hours of caregiving work each week need support and need people who will in turn care for them.

    Benefits of Unpaid Work
    Despite the drawbacks, for many women unpaid work is both tremendously rewarding and satisfying. Taking time to raise one's own children is an experience many women do not want to pass up. For many women, unpaid caregiving work gives them an opportunity to directly experience the results of their labour; the love of their family is more satisfying than money. Many women are frustrated at not being able to afford to take care of their families in a way that feels right to them. (See Caring for Children for more.)

    Woman on phone Volunteering
    Volunteering does not officially fit into Statistics Canada's definition of unpaid work. However, volunteering is another vital unpaid contribution women make to their communities as well as to the economy. In Canada women make up 54% of the volunteer sector.6 Volunteer work is varied and extensive and includes caring for neighbours, forming community groups and institutions, advocacy, helping out in political campaigns, working with people in or leaving prison, agriculture work, community gardens, international aid, assisting in cross-cultural dialogue, working in shelters, providing child care, producing theatre and arts, fund-raising, volunteering at schools and hospitals, preparing and serving food, assisting new immigrants, counselling, and providing employment services, health care, and education. Much of the volunteer work women do is income-generating in itself, such as theatre or other art productions.

    To learn more
    Women's work is adjusting to the demands and affects of economic globalization. To read about some recent trends in women's paid and unpaid work stemming from globalization visit Globalization and Women's Work.



    1 Beijing Platform for Action. Institutional Mechanisms for the Advancement of Women. Available here.
    2 Facts on Canada. Women in Canada. www.infocan.gc.ca (no longer available)
    3 Penney Kome. "Women's unpaid labour subsidizes the global economy." The CCPA Monitor. June 2000.
    4 Progress of the World's Women 2000. UNIFEM Biennial Report.
    5 Women's Global March 2000.Women's Work. Fact sheet.
    6 Angela Febbraro. Gender Differences in Giving and Volunteering. Available here.

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