Women & The Economy - A Project of UNPAC
Home Links Sitemap
Economic Alternatives

Valuing Unpaid Work
<< Back to Alternative Economic Measures

The following article is a summary of a keynote address given by Evelyn Dresher of Mothers are Women at UNPAC's "Counting Women's Work Symposium" held in Brandon in May 1999.

What is the Worth of a Woman?
The measurement of women's unpaid work represented for Mothers Are Women a new strategy in our advocacy about our experience of motherhood and motherwork in today's society. It was, and continues to be, a strategy which uses the tools of the dominant economic model and challenges what is understood by "work", and what is understood by "productive" in that model. It is a strategy based on a feminist analysis and builds on the work of the women's movement.

One of the objectives of the strategy is to put unpaid work into the configuration of Canada's National Accounts and it began with the Census of Population. The Census made women's unwaged work visible - numerical, actual, and unavoidable. Now we need to make it worth something, and what that means is part of the public debate we need to have.

At times the presentation will be technical - talking about how unpaid work is valued rather than why it is important to value it. We all know it should be valued because we have lived with the consequence of it not being valued long enough. We are tired of being overworked, unpaid, and underpaid. It is also vital that women increase their economic literacy. We need to understand the structure of economic value before we can explore its applications to policy in a way that speaks to our work (paid and unpaid), our lives, and our needs as women.

What is the worth of a woman?
The worth of humanity can't be calculated in dollars and cents, but our worth is measured and valued everyday. There is a very elaborate structure of wages and salaries that tell us how much we are worth in the market economy. The basic assumption in determining worth in our economic system is that productive work is worth what is paid for it. By this definition then, unpaid work is not productive because it is not paid for. The almost universally accepted United Nations System of National Accounts that the GDP in part makes up, divides human activity into market and non-market activity. The two are distinguished not by the nature of the activity, its social benefit, but whether or not money changes hands.

Does this mean that unpaid work has no economic value? No. Statistics Canada has calculated that unpaid work is worth between 30.6% and 41.4% of the GDP or Gross Domestic Product. The spread of almost 12% is due to the fact that two valuation methods were used: the first is replacement method, and the second is opportunity method. According to Statistics Canada, the replacement value of unpaid work in Canada in 1992 was 284.9 billion dollars, while that of opportunity value is 318.8 billion.

Replacement value is calculated on the basis of how much it would cost to replace unpaid workers with paid workers based on current hourly wages for comparable work. Unpaid work has only been formally recognized by the courts as work since 1991 when a woman was awarded compensation for lost capacity to do unpaid work (in the past, awards went to the husband for loss of his wife's services). However, it was at a very poor rate which points for the need for a legally recognized method of meaningfullydefining, measuring, and valuing unpaid work.

Opportunity method, on the other hand, is calculated on the amount that those women would be earning if they were in the paid labour market instead of doing unpaid work. This means that it is not the unpaid work that is being valued but the paid work that is not being done that is valued. The drawback to this method is its systemic inequity as women earn much less than men especially in pink collar jobs.

As can be seen, what women do for free has an extremely high price tag. The estimated value varies widely depending on the valuation method used and is dependent on how unpaid work is defined and then measured in the first place.

The Labryrinth of Value: Unraveling the Thread
Replacement and opportunity methods are only two of a variety of models which have been put forward, most with significant drawbacks. The process of developing an understanding of value in relation to unpaid work for social and economic policy purposes demands that we examine what we mean by value. Clearly the emotional and family context of unpaid work gives it a social value larger and more complex than whatever economic value we might give it. However much we know and appreciate the intangible personal and social value, we cannot let economists, politicians, judges, and policy-makers alone tell us our worth as women.

The monetary valuation of unpaid work is a necessary means of turning "assumed" value into real value; that is, public policies which improve the well-being of women, children and their families. Canada is a leading nation in both the development of techniques for the measurement and valuation of unpaid work and the statistical indicator systems designed to help integrate this data into policy. However, the Canadian government does not appear to be pursuing the analytical and practical integration of data into policy-making, despite Canada's dual commitments made in Beijing in 1995, to measure and value unpaid work and include that in satellite accounts as subsets of our national accounts.

Valuation techniques are not being explored: the 1992 statistics continue to be the most recent publicly released figures. We do not know the value of unpaid work in Canada based on the 1996 statistics. Why not? Given the primacy of money in our economic and social culture, statistics on the monetary value of unpaid work hold greater potential political power than measurement data alone; value data may imply policy action that governments are reluctant to take.

Information on the value of unpaid work offers an important analytical tool to policy makers. It is a means of re-framing basic policy questions regarding the distribution of resources, rethinking who is "deserving" of government support. Monetary valuation of unpaid work is also key to challenging the systemic undervaluation of women's paid work that is a primary factor in women's economic insecurity. Valuing unpaid work can also further the understanding of the macro economic implications of unpaid work. Global economic restructuring creates greater urgency as structural adjustment programs in Canada and many other countries rely on women's unpaid work to replace reduced and eliminated paid benefits and services. Recently, two different United Nations human rights committees have chastised Canada for reducing debt at the expense of Canadian women and minorities, who bear the disproportionate burden of social spending cuts. Restructuring was viewed as discriminatory, linking the issue of women's poverty with women's equality. As governments re-privatize caring activities, women's unpaid care work is forced to increase at the expense of their economic security, health and overall well-being. The economic and social implication of these market-to-non-market shifts must be analyzed and cannot be done without an understanding of both the amount and value of unpaid work.

Placing a dollar value on unpaid work allows policy makers to compare unpaid work with other economic variables measures only in dollars. Valuation thus becomes a communication tool by translating unpaid work into a language governments understand: money. Valuation makes it possible to integrate unpaid work data into mainstream economic statistics. Integration with our primary economic statistics, if only through satellite accounts, may be critical in the short term to raise the profile of unpaid work and include it in policy development.

Standard Wage Based Methods
The two most commonly used systems of valuation - replacement cost and opportunity cost - calculate the value of household work on the basis of market wages of comparable paid work which unfortunately perpetuates the gender inequalities in the market as women's wages are lower than men's and wages for "women's work" is lowest of all.

An alternative wage based method assigns value using an average wage (including benefits) multiplied by the number of hours of unpaid work, as calculated through time use studies (a person rate). This method mitigates the effects of current market biases and also recognizes that time has value: time spent on unpaid work is time that cannot be spent on paid work. Two other methods are Output and Pay equity.

The Danger of Using the Master's Tools
Economists opposed to valuing unpaid work think it is too subjective, and inherently inaccurate, but we say a value that falls short is more accurate and preferable to the current value of zero. Feminist economists worry that no evaluation scheme could escape the gender biased methodology that pervades the economic system. Those of us at the grassroots feel that this issue is not about statistical methodology or about economics, but about public policy.

We have concerns about how the data will be used. Our concerns make it clear that women must play an active role in deciding how the work is measured, how it is valued and how the resulting data is used. We must be part of the process and we must be vigilant. It is up to us to take the information and use it to fight for policies that further women's equality and support our various roles, responsibilities and work in society.

What Will the Valuation of Unpaid Work Do?
Value data has the power to unequivocally demonstrate the contribution of unpaid work to the economy, and forms a basis for determination of entitlement to society's resources.

The goal is to reduce the gap between women's economic contribution and their control over economic resources. This is why Mothers are Women(MAW) has called the struggle to get unpaid work measured and valued the "kitchen table revolution." It is an issue of economic visibility and economic rights.

That unpaid work is more than a labour of love is a radical idea. At bottom remains, however, that other sense of value. Marilyn Waring wrote:

Political and economic policies flow from the narrow agenda of political elitesÄ And while we can collect more data,... goals and priorities should flow, not from the assemblages of statistics, but from values. Our values... the values of centuries of enslavement.


[ Back to top of page ]

Back to UNPAC's home page

© 2003 - 2011   Site last updated March 2011
Women & The Economy - UNPAC
60 Maryland Street   | Winnipeg, MB R3G 1K7  |  Phone: 204-772-7876
Questions? Email us at inquiries@unpac.ca