America Owes Women $1.5 Trillion for Our Unpaid Work Last Year

Changing diapers. Buying groceries. Cooking dinner. Scrubbing dishes.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work that women do, for free, every day. Now, thanks to an analysis by Oxfam published in The New York Times, we know just how much that work is worth, and the number is staggering: If American women were paid just minimum wage for all we do to keep our households running, we would have collectively earned $1.5 trillion last year.

Globally, women would have earned $10.9 trillion. If you combined all the money made by the 50 biggest companies in the world in 2018, it would still equal less than what women are owed for our unpaid labor.

And, again, that’s assuming women were paid minimum wage (or a living wage, for countries that don’t have a minimum wage) for minor tasks like, you know, caring for aging parents and raising the next generation.

It’s an important figure to note because women’s work largely goes unrecognized—literally. It’s not part of GDP calculations and rarely factors into other measures of economic growth. The Times piece points to the example of Iceland, where women went on strike in 1975 to protest unequal pay. They refused to cook, clean or look after children for a day, and it brought the Nordic nation to a standstill.

“It is notoriously difficult to value because the normal market signals of supply and demand don’t work: Traditional expectations that caring for children, the elderly and the infirm should be done gratis within the family obscure the true economic value of this work. And yet what the example of Iceland shows us is that women provide a huge unacknowledged subsidy to the smooth functioning of our economies, which would grind to a halt if women stopped doing this work,” the authors, Gus Wezerek and Kristen R. Ghodsee, suggest.

Men also perform unpaid labor, but substantially less than women. In the US, women spend an average of four hours on unpaid work per day as compared to men’s two and a half hours. Countries with robust welfare programs, such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada and Finland, have higher gender parity, the authors point out. In Sweden, women spend about an hour more on unpaid labor than men. In India, on the other hand, women spend roughly five hours more than men on household duties.

Other surveys have shown that when you factor in family duties, the average working mom works 98 hours a week. Of course, we only earn a paycheck for part of that work. And that’s why tallying up the sum of our efforts is so important. Even when it is paid, “women’s work,” such as caregiving, is consistently undervalued. Maybe if we factored it into our total economic output, global leaders would work a little harder to make sure it was properly appreciated.

Speaking of appreciation, if men would like to show some this International Women’s Day, might we suggest cold hard cash? Or a little unpaid labor to lighten our load?