Even though we have it easier, we’re still not paid to do our laundry

“Time Poverty” Here at Home

The Unpaid Labor Gender Gap Isn’t Just a Third-World Problem

Most of us had never heard the term “time poverty,” until billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates recently shone a light on the problem in her foundation’s annual letter. But reading her first-hand observations of how families divide unpaid labor, coupled with stark statistics of how women carry so much more of the burden, I realized that “time poverty” is simply a new name for a very old problem.

Worldwide, there is a significant gap between the amount of unpaid labor performed by women compared to that performed by men. Gates defines “unpaid labor” simply:

“Unpaid work is what it says it is: It’s work, not play, and you don’t get any money for doing it. But every society needs it to function.”

Cleaning, food shopping, childcare, cooking, and eldercare are all tasks that aren’t going away — but unfortunately the gender imbalance in who performs them doesn’t seem to be going away either.

The gap is widest in the poorest regions of the world, where women do as much as five hours more unpaid labor per day than men. In North America, women still perform two more hours per day than men [source: OECD 2014 Gender, Institutions and Development Database]. But when you consider that North America has a much higher percentage of both parents working outside the home, and that 25% of American families with children under age 18 are single mother households, it raises the question — how on earth do even first-world mothers find the time to do both paid and unpaid labor?

The Opportunity Cost

The problem of time poverty is not only one of fairness, or lack of leisure time, but of a large-scale opportunity cost to communities and the global economy. When women’s days are filled with unpaid labor, they find it difficult to learn new skills, advance in a job, or invent something new. Economist Rania Antonopoulos has argued that the gender gap in unpaid labor holds back economies (and societies) from reaching their full potential.

If women in the poorest countries were able to spend more time earning money for their families instead of working for free, that would have a powerful impact on their local economy. The same is true for the “overeducated” mom with a PhD, whose time may be better spent doing research and teaching than fishing socks out of the dryer.

Innovating Our Way to Equality

Despite the statistics, Melinda Gates is optimistic. She sees the time poverty problem as a consequence of persistent social norms, not a global conspiracy against women. She points out that technology may present an opportunity to short-circuit this stubborn cultural pattern:

“The solution is innovation, and you can help. Some of you will become engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and software developers. I invite you to take on the challenge of serving the poor with cheap, clean energy, better roads, and running water. Or maybe you can invent ingenious labor-saving technologies.”

The key to solving the time poverty problem may indeed be to shift some of the burden of unpaid labor onto technology, freeing up more time and energy for paid work, or at least giving us back a few hours a day to spend as we please. Technical innovation can also be used to connect women to each other, in ways that weren’t possible before the App Store and geolocation. When women who are starved for time can call on the services of women who need to earn extra money, we will all reap more rewards from our labor.