10,900,000,000,000 dollars. That’s what women worldwide would’ve earned if they were paid the minimum wage in their home countries for their unpaid labour in 2018. That’s right, 10,9 trillion dollars. Globally, women do two to ten times more unpaid care-work and work in and around the house than men (and yes, it’d be a good idea for institutions like the UN, ILO and OECD to start collecting data on people who do not conform to the gender binary).
Why, in the first place, is domestic work often unpaid? A big part of the answer is that the work often remains unseen. Cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping keeps the household running and facilitates other work. The person who prepares dinner and cleans the bathroom enables other members of the household to focus on school or do their paid jobs – and in most heterosexual households this person is the woman. People who do little to nothing of the daily household tasks often take their clean house and full fridge for granted, which makes that the work goes unrecognised.
Part of keeping the household running is remembering to buy the neighbours a present, to pay the babysitter or to schedule a dentist appointment. This work, which is highly invisible, is called the cognitive load or the mental load. The many small tasks that dominate many women’s mind 24/7 take up much time and energy. If you really want to help them out, don’t ask what you can do to help but try to relieve them of the mental load by thinking for yourself what needs to be done.
A further reason for why domestic work remains unpaid is that it’s often considered to be typically feminine, expected to be done by those in the role of the mother. Such preconceptions feed the idea that domestic work comes natural to women; it is simply part of womanhood, rather than an immense, active effort with great economic and cultural value.
Failure to recognise this value by leaving domestic work unpaid presents a problem. Women generally have less financial independence, which is not simply disempowering but also makes it harder to leave toxic or abusive relationships. Unpaid labour generally also means receiving little recognition for your work. Imagine being at a party as a couple, with one of you being a housewife and the other being a nurse. Chances are other guests at the party will be more interested in the person with the “real job”. A further problem is that women often unwillingly take up more than their fair share of domestic work. That’s frustrating and becomes infuriating when you realise that it halts career development.
A further issue is that unpaid domestic work replaces services that previously had to be paid for. Think of elderly care, where in recent years volunteers started doing social activities with elderly people in nursing homes. Why don’t we financially compensate nurses for providing comprehensive care? Finally, when domestic work is being paid, it’s paid very little. Too many housekeepers, nannies and maids work for very low pay, under no or unstable contracts, without social security. Proper recognition for domestic work would lift them out of these precarious working conditions.
Recently, momfluencers have started making money doing work in the household. They post their cooking on Instagram and show off their newest vacuum cleaners. In doing so, they make domestic work visible and financially exploit it; housewifery as a business model. Sure, you may raise an eyebrow over how they earn their money (from targeted Instagram ads that make people consume stuff they don’t need to posting photos of their children online without consent), but it’s worth thinking about why these women get so much scorn for what they do. Perhaps we cannot stand the idea that women get hard cash for mopping the floor.
How to fix the many problems of unpaid domestic labour? The obvious answer: Split the work equally between people of all genders. Next to that, we must create more and better career opportunities for people who’ve done unpaid labour and want to start doing paid work. We may also want to think about giving people who do unpaid work in the household a share of their partner’s of housemate’s income. And we must absolutely pay domestic workers more.