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  • Writer's pictureRachana Kadikar

Policy Options to Redistribute Unpaid Labor in Developed Countries

The unequal division of unpaid labor is a time and energy burden put on women around the world. Unpaid labor is a broad spectrum of household work that one performs without the goal of compensation or benefits. This could include routine housework such as washing the dishes or laundry, shopping for necessary goods, taking care of children and the elderly, and other economically invisible unpaid activities related to maintaining a household. In this article, I will explore policy options to redistribute the gender disparities in unpaid labor for those in more developed economic, social, and political conditions.


Much of our morals and world-views are based on what we were exposed to as children. Therefore, younger generations are a valuable group to target to achieve significant change in societal mentality in the long term.

Ad campaigns can typically work by appreciating the value of unpaid care work and normalizing unpaid care work by men. These can be public or private education campaigns for parents and teens focused on shifting unpaid care work norms. “Superman is Back” is a South Korean reality television show from 2013 that shows South Korean celebrity fathers being forced to care for their children for over two days without the help of their wives. The goal of this show was to normalize the idea of men doing more unpaid care work in households. This show had high viewership and reached audiences in South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The impact of this show on viewers hasn’t been determined yet, but policies like these are showing great promise.

Decades ago, feminist groups in Iceland organized a women’s strike to promote gender work equality, as women in Iceland earned over 40% less than men in the early 1970s. On October 24, 1975, 90% of women in Iceland in all communities did not go to their paid jobs or perform unpaid labor. Soon after the strike, Iceland created the Gender Equality Council and passed the Gender Equality Act to prevent discrimination in education and in the workforce. Today, Iceland boasts the highest level of gender equality in the world, with the highest women’s labor force participation rates. Although the great results today aren’t necessarily directly caused by this specific strike, what happened that day was the first step for opening the eyes of many men to how significant of a role women play in upholding the country. A great step for any country, especially those with higher gender disparities in income, is to first acknowledge the importance of the unpaid work that women are doing without recognition.

In more developed countries, there still exist major differences in parenting, which directly contribute to mentalities about gender roles. For example, in the United States, 70% of boys get an allowance compared to only 60% of girls, and parents pay their sons twice as much for the same chores than they do their daughters. This ongoing difference in childhood treatment can contribute to women’s likelihood to take on more unpaid labor and seek less competitive careers in the future.

In addition, parents are more likely to think of their daughters as more vulnerable and in need of protection, and they put more restrictions on them as a result. Eventually, such restrictions culminate in decreased confidence when these women enter adulthood. They feel unequal to their male counterparts, and therefore don’t have the confidence to combat their internalized gender stereotypes.

Even parts of childhood as simple as the toys given to young children can play a part in gender inequalities. Girls learn about domestic skills, empathy, and communication when playing with barbie dolls, while boys learn risk-taking, problem-solving, and competition when playing with action figures. Values such as empathy that tend to be instilled in women from childhood are also completely different from the traits labeled as masculine that are valued in the corporate world, such as competitiveness and leadership. This makes it more difficult for women to climb the ladder and seek out higher-paying competitive jobs in the first place. The private sector can make a difference by making children’s toys more gender neutral, and by promoting equality in media, such as in advertisements or children’s shows.


There exist minimal underlying differences in the minds and abilities of men and women, yet there are major differences in the incomes and jobs that men and women ultimately receive. Some of these differences occur as a result of contrasts in upbringing and the result of societal pressures. It is not purely a biological or psychological incentive that spurs women to choose lower-paying jobs in caregiving occupations. The top occupations of women in 2019 in the United States were teachers, nurses, nursing/psychiatric/home health aids, secretaries/administrative assistants, and cashiers. A reason why women still tend to choose caregiving occupations is because of persistent gender specializations, in which women engage in childcare roles, whereas the men engage in laborious activities outside of the home, which bring economic gains. These gender specializations have little to do with actual biological differences between the minds of women and men, and more to do with the patriarchal cultures found throughout the history of the world. However, caregiving occupations (eg. teaching) tend to pay significantly less.

Behind much of these unfair stereotypes hindering women from reaching their greatest potential are unfair stereotypes that directly relate to unpaid labor disparities based on gender. Policies and regulations can make a huge difference in reducing both the labor disparities and the stereotypes that result from them. In addition, dismantling gender stereotypes is a valuable policy direction for most countries, regardless of the progress towards gender parity in unpaid labor.

With the rise of women’s empowerment movements, women are demonstrating their equal mental abilities in all fields, lending proof to the fact that women are equally capable of thriving in male-dominated fields. However, women still don’t tend to choose fields like finance or surgery due to the persistent lack of female role models in these historically male-dominated fields. In addition, they are exposed to assumptions about which fields are supposedly better suited for females. Ultimately, the gender wage gap amounts to a woman getting paid 81 cents for every dollar a man earns, with worse pay comparisons for black, hispanic, and indigenous women.

Women are often subject to the “glass ceiling” in their opportunities for advancement within the workplace. Despite possessing the qualifications and strengths that merit advancements in the corporate ladder, women aren’t given the opportunities due to promotional bias, often because of fears and stereotypes. Many hiring managers might hold internal biases about potential motherhood for women and are more likely to give promotions to men (even fathers) over women with or without children. Wage discrimination often slips through the cracks when a man and a woman hold the same position with the same responsibilities but with different job titles, leading to differences in pay. The figure below provides evidence for the glass ceiling that women are facing in career progression, showing the significant difference in leadership roles held by women and men.

Oftentimes, the interview process looks different for women, filled with personal questions about children and plans to have children. Employers tend to avoid hiring women who might take a maternity leave, which is a form of discrimination in itself. Since men aren’t typically asked this question and could potentially take a paternity leave as well, women face unfair discrimination when being considered for a job. If measures are taken to equalize the amount of unpaid labor done by all parents, then these questions aren’t valuable for an indication on a mother’s potential performance in the job compared to a father’s.

Women with children are paid 4.6% less than women without children, even with all qualifications and hours being accounted for. This wage gap is known as the motherhood penalty. In sharp contrast, fathers with children often get paid more than men without children and experience a fatherhood premium. In order to close this pay gap between mothers and fathers, a more equal share of responsibilities should be emphasized within households. This equality within households will have a significant effect on easing the pay gap as stereotypes about motherhood will diminish in the hiring and work processes, women will spend less time on unpaid household work, and women will be able to take advantage of more career advancement opportunities and not feel unequal in the process.

Ceteris paribus, women still experience wage discrimination on nothing more than their gender. Statistics show that a woman earns 98 cents for every dollar a man earns in the United States, and more dramatic statistics exist for black, hispanic, and indigenous women. In addition, the more qualifications and education necessary for the job, the higher the controlled gender wage gap. Anesthesiologists have the most significant controlled pay gap in the United States, with a woman making 83 cents for every dollar a man makes (a $60,000 difference in annual income).

Similar wage gaps exist in other high-level careers such as electrical/electronic equipment assemblers, computer operators, chemical system operators, engineers, etc. The more educated a woman is, the larger her hourly gender wage gap. A $3 hourly wage gap for those with a less than high school education becomes a $4 hourly wage gap for high school graduates and college dropouts, and then turns into a $9 hourly wage gap for college graduates, and ultimately becomes a $12 hourly wage gap for women with advanced degrees. The figure below highlights the gender wage gap as education increases.

Over the COVID-19 pandemic, women accounted for 54% of job losses despite only making up 39% of global employment, making women’s jobs 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s jobs during the pandemic. The distribution of unpaid labor plays a major role in these disparities, with women taking on significant unpaid burdens due to quarantine. Women’s employment is dropping much faster, even considering any differences in job choices or other confounding variables.

Current policies can also have a big impact on household decisions that perpetuate harmful traditional gender roles.

A valuable policy step to increasing women’s labor force participation and decreasing discrimination is pay transparency. This means making businesses share details about how they distribute wages and the processes behind employment decisions. This will force organizations to modernize their approaches to employment and compensation and reduce closed-door negotiations and manager discretion practices, which all typically favor men.

Numerous studies show a positive correlation between paternity leave and a decreased disparity in unpaid labor. For example, Sweden’s gender neutral parental leave has contributed to the almost equitable distribution of household tasks between spouses, and women’s significant increase in the labor force participation rate. In Sweden, all parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave per child. Sweden also ensured that 90 of those days cannot be transferred to the other parent with the goal of achieving a more even distribution of unpaid work. In countries with issues in hiring discrimination based on fears of maternity leave and decreased productivity as a mother, using gender-neutral parenting policies ultimately has the potential to reduce hiring discrimination significantly. However, this policy mostly applies to developed countries in which women already have a high labor force participation rate, since in many developing countries, women tend to work in the informal sector and aren’t covered by maternity leave.

Paid parental leave has a plethora of benefits for both the parents (especially mothers) as well as the children. It makes it easier for parents to manage work and family, as well as reduces the chances that a parent will have to leave the labor force (even temporarily) to take on the household tasks. Working women will be able to increase their breastfeeding time, which is beneficial for infants as well as mothers. Fathers who initially take a paid leave will also be more likely to be involved in their child’s direct care after birth compared to those who don’t. In the United States, paid maternity leave isn’t required, but California expanded paid leave in 2004, which, to some surprise, led to mothers becoming more likely to take longer leaves and permanent leaves from the labor force. However, this study fails to acknowledge the fact that the long work hours required for many jobs can make combining work and caretaking incredibly difficult. Redistributing unpaid labor among parents makes it less likely that a mother would be as stressed about maintaining both the household and a career. Ultimately, families experience more equitable divisions of unpaid labor when both parents take equal parental leaves.

Paternity leave is a rare policy that hasn’t been put fully into place in most countries but has demonstrated promising results. In Sweden, with the use-it-or-lose-it policy for paternity leave, research demonstrates that there is a negative correlation between the length of the parental leave and hours dedicated to work outside of the home, indicating that men are more likely to take on more unpaid labor the longer the leave they take. Currently, due to COVID-19, with 76% of all health-care jobs in the U.S. being taken by women, many working dads are pushed into caretaking roles, which can ultimately create long-lasting impacts on the distribution of unpaid labor. Implementing gender-equal paid leave has great implications for children’s development and family well-being . Studies show that involved fathers promote children’s education, emotional stability, and even the sleep of their families. When men are involved throughout the pregnancy and infanthood, women are less stressed, have healthier pregnancies and births, and experience reduced risks of postpartum depression.

Family-friendly policies are also a vital step to take for many countries. Pursuing policies that help parents maintain a family, as well as participate in the labor force, is a valuable step for countries to take in order to redistribute the unpaid labor among partners. When it’s easier to participate in the labor force while simultaneously taking care of children, there is a lower chance that one parent pursues the breadwinner role, while the other, usually the woman, mostly focuses on maintaining the household.

Flexible work arrangements is a great family-friendly work policy to keep women in the labor force. Around 31% of women who were forced to take a break from their career after having kids said it was mainly due to a lack of workplace flexibility. Once flexible work arrangements are easily available in companies, more women will be likely to join and remain in the workforce, even with increasing unpaid care duties.

Offering childcare services, such as on-site daycare, dependent care flexible spending accounts, and child care subsidies, can help working mothers more easily balance career and family life. 69% of parents said that child care affects their career decisions — even more relevant for mothers who usually foot the burden of the child care work.

In the past, Sweden has taken many policy steps to promote gender economic equality. One valuable policy has been a separate income taxation system for each spouse, which creates incentives for women to work, as their income is independent of their partner’s income. If both parents work and achieve the same level of household income, progressive tax brackets will lead to the decreased overall household taxation. This policy is likely to increase women’s labor force participation and therefore ease disparities in unpaid labor.

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