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Women and unpaid work: recognise, reduce, redistribute!

Women and unpaid work: recognise, reduce, redistribute! © warrengoldswain / Shutterstock

8 March is the International Women's Day. This year's theme is gender equality that is indispensable for achieving many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is also crucial for achieving the EU's Europe2020 targets of raising employment and reducing poverty.

So this is a good moment to look at how EU Member States are performing with regard to one key aspect of gender equality, namely equal participation in the labour market and how this is affected by unpaid work.

Gender equality is one of the fundamental values of the EU and there is a strong emphasis on gender equality in the labour market. The Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019 recalls this by underlining the importance of

  • increasing female labour market participation and equal economic independence, and
  • reducing gender pay, earnings and pension gaps and fighting poverty among women.

In the last ten years, female employment rate (women aged 20-64 years old) in the EU28 has risen from 60% to 64%, but the gender gap in employment is still 11.5 percentage points. The largest gap, more than 28 percentage points, can be found in Malta that has however made remarkable progress in women's participation in the labour market, from an employment rate of 34.8% in 2005 to 52.0% in 2014. The gap is compounded by the higher prevalence of part-time work among women in all countries.

Only Sweden has achieved the EU2020 employment target of 75% for both men and women, while Germany and the other two Nordic countries are close to the target. In contrast, in Greece and Italy, female employment rates are the lowest in the EU, 44.3% and 50.3% respectively.

Double burden of women: recognise the problem

The female employment rate is only one indicator to look at. Whether we consider wages, managerial positions, representation in company boards, or hours worked, women always fare less well than men in the labour market. There is, however, one type of work where women clearly out-perform men: unpaid work.

Women devote significantly more time to household work than men. They work as cooks, child minders and cleaning ladies for their own households – much more than men. This work is essential for the quality of life of men, women and their children, but the way it is shared between women and men is a major source of gender inequality.

According to the data from national time use surveys compiled by the OECD, women in Portugal, Italy and Ireland carry out more than 70% of the unpaid work. Even in the gender-egalitarian countries of the North, women are still doing almost two thirds of the unpaid work (see chart 1). Portuguese women spend more than five hours per day in unpaid work compared to a bit more than one and a half hours of men. An equal sharing of this work would certainly impact on women's career opportunities and opportunities for self-development.

Melinda Gates addressed the issue of time poverty that women face globally in the Gates' annual letter 2016. She promotes an approach which she describes as "recognise, reduce and redistribute"; it would be valid in Europe as well.

Chart 1 shows that there is a problem to be recognised: the sharing of household work is very uneven and puts women at a disadvantage in terms of developing and using their full human capital potential in the labour market. Second, there are public policies that can contribute to reducing the burden of unpaid work, most prominently among them childcare provision. Third, responsibilities at home can be redistributed between women and men; paternity leaves and incentives for men to take parental leave are ways for governments and employers to promote redistribution to some extent.

Affordable childcare: reduce the problem

The provision of affordable childcare services has been shown to be strongly linked to female employment. The availability of formal childcare reduces care responsibilities at home and enables parents to work. This is why the EU heads of states agreed in 2002 on the so-called Barcelona targets for providing childcare to

  • at least 90% of children between 3 and the mandatory school age, and
  • at least 33% of children below 3 years of age.

Now, more than a decade later, there has been considerable progress in relation to these targets, for example in Germany from 16% in 2005 to 28% in 2013 or in Slovenia from 24% to 39% for children below 3 years old. For children above 3 years old, the increase has been from 58% to 92% in Malta, from 87% to 96% in Sweden, from 69% to 79% in Austria, and from 78% to 91% in Estonia, to mention a few countries.

Nonetheless, most of the countries are still far below the target level (see chart 2). This is especially evident in Poland, Romania and Croatia. Only six countries have so far reached both targets: Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, France, Slovenia, and Spain.

Promoting gender equality now and in the future: redistribute the burden

A recent Harvard Business School working paper showed that adult daughters of employed mothers have themselves a higher probability of being employed, holding supervisory responsibilities, working more hours, and earning higher wages than women whose mothers were home full-time (even when controlling for education, age, religion, etc.). The same study shows that mothers’ work also has an equalising impact on the division of household chores: sons of working mothers take part in domestic work to a greater extent than sons of mothers who stayed at home.

Gender equality now will thus have important consequences for gender equality in the future. When mothers of today work they become examples and role models for the next generation. But public policies are still needed to foster this development – starting with the political will to achieve the Barcelona targets in childcare use.

Happy International Women's Day!

To read more about childcare and mothers' employment, read Chapter 3.2 "Social Protection" in our review Employment and Social Development in Europe 2015.

Author: M. Vaalavuo works as a socio-economic analyst in the Analytical unit of DG EMPL.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.

Editor's note: this article is part of a regular series called "Evidence in focus", which will put the spotlight on key findings from past and on-going research at DG EMPL.