Women, Unpaid Work, and Why it Matters

March 8, 2016 By Miriam Smallman

Bill and Melinda Gates recently released their annual letter, which outlines the Gates Foundation’s philanthropic goals. This year, Melinda Gates tackled the topic of unpaid labor: tasks like fetching water, preparing meals, caring for children—things that need to be done, but that don’t pay. She noted that the majority of unpaid work across the world is disproportionately placed on women, and that the poor are the most heavily impacted by the imbalance.

“Globally, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work. Men spend less than half that much time,” Gates says. “But the fact is that the burden of unpaid work falls heaviest on women in poor countries, where the hours are longer and the gap between women and men is wider. In India, to take one example, women spend about 6 hours, and men spend less than 1 hour.”

What, if not these tasks, could girls and women be spending their time on? Building a business perhaps, or maybe doing homework?

“Some women might simply read a book or take a walk or visit a friend, and I totally support that, too,” Gates says. “Everybody’s better off when more of us are fulfilled in our daily lives.”

Businesses and NGOs (including many USGLC members) are actually already taking steps to help empower women around the world and turn Gates’ vision into reality.

Organizations like PATH and Gavi have been busy developing and ensuring access to vaccines that can not only save lives, but free up time that would otherwise have been spent—likely by women—caring for sick family members. Vaccines also provide a pretty impressive return on investment in developing countries: a new study shows that every $1 spent on vaccines can lead to $44 in future savings.

Other programs, like Coca-Cola’s 5by20 initiative, seek to empower women entrepreneurs by providing access to business skill training courses, mentorship, and opportunities to earn or increase income. Investing in women is not only the right thing to do—it’s also the smart thing. Every $1 invested in programs that empower women generates $7 in social, economic, and environmental benefits.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s remember how empowering women helps build a better world.


Photo: Source, USAID