Counting Women's Work: Measuring the Gendered Economy in the Market and at Home

by National Transfer Accounts Project

NTA Bulletin, No. 11

Publisher: Honolulu: National Transfer Accounts Project
Publication Date: January 2017
Binding: electronic
Pages: 8
Free Download: PDF


SUMMARY  |  The Counting Women's Work (CWW) initiative is measuring the full economic contribution of women, including paid work in the marketplace and unpaid care and housework at home. This issue of the NTA Bulletin describes the project and reports some illustrative results from Ghana, Mexico, Senegal, the United States, and Vietnam. These examples demonstrate how CWW analysis makes it possible to quantify the differences between men and women in market work and wages, the excess total work time that most women spend relative to men, the potential barrier that household responsibilities represent to women's education and career development, and the "hidden" costs of children.

Through the ages, women have specialized in the unpaid work of raising children, maintaining households, and caring for others, while men have been more likely to earn wages in the market. As fertility rates have declined, however, growing numbers of women have joined the labor force outside the home. Understanding how women’s economic roles are changing and how and why they may change in the future is crucial for ensuring the wellbeing of children and other family members, improving gender equality, and maintaining a healthy rate of economic growth.

Standard measures of economic activity, such as gross domestic product, are based on the market value of labor income. Although labor income is defined comprehensively, it does not include the value of unpaid care provided within the household or the many forms of housework—such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, shopping, and general household management and maintenance. These are just the activities that are largely performed by women. As a result, much of women’s work remains invisible in economic monitoring systems and thus outside of the realm of economic analysis and policy development.

The Counting Women's Work (CWW) initiative, a component of the National Transfer Accounts (NTA) project, improves understanding of women’s economic roles by measuring their full economic contribution, both in the marketplace and at home. CWW analysis involves two major initiatives—separating out the contributions of women and men within standard measures of economic activity and adding the production, consumption, and transfer of the unpaid care and household services that are largely performed by women.

As expected, CWW analysis of time use shows that the provision of household services is largely the responsibility of women, while men spend more time on work in the marketplace. This is true even in a “modern” society such as the United States.

In a more traditional society such as Mexico, women do much less market work than men, and men are responsible for practically no care or household services.

The time-use surveys that measure men’s and women’s work at home and in the marketplace also measure the time spent on education (class time plus outside studying) and the remainder, which is leisure and self-care, with sleep being the largest sub-component. These four activities add up to the total time available in a week.

A comparison of women’s and men’s time spent on these four activities in Vietnam and Ghana show similar overall patterns, but with some striking differences. In both countries, boys and young men spend more time on education than girls and young women. This pattern is similar across most countries analyzed so far. Exceptions are the US and many European countries where girls and young women spend more time on education than their male counterparts.

As in the US and Mexico, men in Vietnam and Ghana spend more time working in the market place than women, and women spend more time providing care and household services. The differences are greater in Ghana than in Vietnam. And at almost all ages, men in both countries spend more time on leisure and self-care than women.

The examples given here demonstrate how the NTA/CWW framework makes it possible to quantify many aspects of gender inequality. These include the differences between men and women in market work and wages, the potential barrier that household responsibilities represent to women’s education and participation in market work, the excess total work time that most women spend relative to men, and the “hidden” costs of children, revealed by the large number of hours that women of childbearing age spend providing household care and services.

The policy implications are obvious. In Ghana, policymakers are concerned about improving educational outcomes for girls, but housework responsibilities may be detracting from the time girls have available for schooling. This, among other factors, can affect their income-earning potential throughout their lives. Clearly, a policymaker or advocate wishing to encourage teenage girls to continue their education would do well to address the responsibilities for housework that take up so much of their time.

Policymakers in rapidly developing countries of Asia have another concern. In countries such as Vietnam, plummeting fertility levels will lead to a shrinking working-age population over the next few decades. Solutions might include raising fertility or encouraging more women to join the workforce.

Vietnamese women have, on average, fewer than two children each, and their market work never exceeds 22 hours per week at any age, but working-age women in Vietnam provide long hours of care and household services. Policies to encourage women to increase either their fertility or their participation in the market economy need to address this heavy burden of housework.

Today, NTA research teams are undertaking new analyses and expanding studies of production and consumption by men and women to a larger group of countries. Such results have important policy implications for countries at widely different stages of economic development.

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