The Missing Piece: Valuing women’s unrecognized contribution to the economy

March 8, 2024

In commemoration of International Women's Day, this #GraphForThought delves into an often-overlooked aspect where women play a pivotal role: the care economy.

The care economy encompasses the unpaid and paid work involved in nurturing, sustaining, and supporting individuals and communities. From childcare and eldercare to domestic chores and emotional support, women predominantly shoulder this responsibility, often at the expense of their own insertion into the labour market. Statistics reveal the staggering magnitude of this contribution. At the global level, ILO estimated in 2018 that around 16.4 billion hours were devoted to unpaid care work daily, equivalent to 2 billion people working full-time with no pay, or around 25% of the world’s total population. Valued at an hourly minimum wage, this unpaid care work would constitute 9% of global GDP, amounting to 11 trillion.  

What is often overlooked is the stark gender disparity within this sector. At the global level, women were found to perform three-quarters (76.2%) of unpaid care work, dedicating an average of 4 hours and 25 minutes per day, compared to men's 1 hour and 23 minutes. This equals to approximately 201 working days per year for women compared to 63 for men. As a previous #GraphForThought presented, the COVID-19 pandemic made these disparities more visible and deepened them.  

Using data from satellite accounts of the care economy for each country, the graph below shows that for Latin America and the Caribbean, on average, unpaid care work represents approximately 21.4% of the GDP, significantly above the OECD average of 15%. In other words, if the value of unpaid care work was quantified, it could represent as much as 21 cents for every dollar the region’s economy generated. We also observe some heterogeneity in the region in terms of the value of unpaid care work, which could potentially depend on demographic factors (e.g., aging populations), cultural norms (e.g., the expectation of women as primary caregivers), or economic policies (e.g., access to childcare services). However, it's important to acknowledge that time-use surveys might vary and are often not comparable. 


We also observe large disparities between men's and women’s contribution to care work, with women carrying the burden of about three-fourths (74%) of unpaid care work in most countries. This trend persists even in OECD countries (66%), stressing the essential role of women in sustaining the economic and social fabric.  

Although the disproportionate burden of care responsibilities has profound implications for women's lives, it also impacts families, communities, and society as a whole. Balancing caregiving duties with paid work often results in reduced economic opportunities, limited career advancement, and increased vulnerability to poverty and social exclusion. Moreover, the lack of institutional support and recognition for caregiving perpetuates gender norms and reinforces existing inequalities. The disparity becomes even more pronounced when caregivers are migrants, especially those without legal status.

In LAC, women are at the forefront of driving change in the care economy. Across the region, they are organizing, advocating, and seeking recognition for their vital contributions to caregiving roles and the broader economy. Many countries in the region have seen the rise of feminist movements calling for policy reforms that acknowledge and support caregivers. From advocating for affordable childcare services to demanding parental leave policies that promote gender equality, women are leading the charge in creating a more equitable future.

However, integrating the care economy into social protection systems is not just a matter of equity. Recognizing and valuing caregiving as an essential economic activity is fundamental to building more resilient and inclusive societies.

By investing in policies that support women's participation in the economy, such as affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and flexible working arrangements, societies can harness the full productive capacity of women. For example, expanding access to childcare tends to increase women’s participation in the labor force by about 1 percentage point initially, and this impact is observed to double over five years. However, it is also necessary to promote policies that aim to redistribute caregiving responsibilities across genders and various societal actors, including the state, markets, families, and communities, to ensure a more equitable division of labor. Balance caregiving responsibilities not only enhances women’s economic independence but also drives overall productivity and economic growth, making investing in women's involvement in the economy a necessity for driving sustainable development and prosperity.