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To create gender equality we have to look at GDP

30 May 2018

Work life unfair

GDP is an incomplete measure often criticised by economists for its lack of robustness. One major reason for the criticism is GDP’s failure to account for the significant goods and services produced by unpaid work, as well as barter and the black market. Leaving aside barter and the black market and concentrating on unpaid work (domestic work), it comes as no surprise who does the lion’s share. The amount, however, about two thirds of all housework is performed by women, is staggering. By not understanding what unpaid work adds to and subtracts from a country’s economy we are left with an incomplete economic picture. Measuring the value financially of this unpaid work is important for women’s economic value and, following on from that, equality. Why? Because the view afforded by GDP as it stands is a biased one and, so, iniquitous.

In 2017 the United Nations Economic Commission of Europe released its UNECE Guide on Valuing Unpaid Household Service Work. The document touches on the issues surrounding valuing unpaid domestic work and notes that “implementation of the Guide’s recommendations would improve international comparability of statistics on unpaid household service work. While the publication mainly targets national statistical authorities, it also provides useful information for policymakers, researchers and other users of these data.”

Measuring unpaid household work is fascinating and gives you much to shock people with at a dinner party. It also has immense significance for feminism economics. The New Zealand writer, feminist, activist, politician and academic, Marilyn Waring has been called the founder of feminism economics. According to Australian author Anne Manne in a recent essay in The Monthly, it was Waring’s book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth, published in 1988… that first gave us “…a sharp-eyed analysis of how mainstream economics and the calculations that are the basis of gross domestic product – used as the universal measure of progress and a nation’s wellbeing – exclude and make invisible women’s huge contribution to society through their life-sustaining unpaid labour. These calculations, she points out, attribute no value to nature and fail to take into account the cost of “progress” on the environment.”

The flexible work practices of modern workplaces support women in their efforts to try and balance such largely uneven workloads but the problem of imbalance remains. Hopefully as more men share the care – opting for a life that is more than just paid work – that will change.

At present, looking at the division of labour, and the value of work as defined by men, the economic and moral playing field is anything but even. By valuing unpaid work and then distributing it evenly, you move toward creating equality.

Of course, the advent of artificial intelligence and robots paints a very different picture of work and changes the playing field for everyone. A recent IMF (International Monetary Fund) research paper has found in all scenarios - from moderate substitution of labour by robots to a full take over - that “automation is good for growth and bad for equality”.

Understanding the value of unpaid work will be important if economies are to know what and who is being replaced and for what cost – socially and economically. But before we get there, what of our already existing practice of farming out unpaid work – commercialising everything from child and elder care to house work and volunteering?

Take the example of being a parent. Will that abrogation of responsibility, mostly only on the part of men at present, mean our souls are worse off? If we agree that caring for and about our children is part of what makes us human beings and creates the society we want to live in, and we have no concept of caring for them because we have exempted ourselves from the process – had it valued and made of it a commercial transaction – what will that mean for society and our souls?