"Think what you could do with four years of your life. You could write a book; serve a term in public office, raise a school-age child," says Lucia Fry, policy lead at the development charity ActionAid. Or in my case, finally grow out a terrible dye job.
According to an ActionAidreport presented to the United Nations today, women work a global average of four extra years compared to men—and it's all because of their larger role in housework, caring for children, the sick, and elderly. Even in developed countries such as the UK, British women can expect to work two and a half years longer than their male counterparts. If every woman in the world was paid for these extra hours, they could expect to earn an estimated £41,000 ($53,228) over their lifetimes.
The figures were calculated using World Bank data for 217 nations, consisting of 78 developed and 138 developing countries. The economists calculated global daily averages of paid and unpaid work hours for men and women, subtracting the total number of hours for males from the female total. The difference was then used to calculate the average extra time that women work over their lives, based on a global life expectancy of 69 years.
"This paints a global picture, and it's an average figure," Fry explains. "But in some parts of the world—particularly developing countries—the picture will be far more extreme." She highlights how a woman living in a Bangladeshi slum may queue for hours for basic essentials like fuel and water, clean the family home, and then work a 12-hour-shift at a garment factory. "It amounts to a life of pretty much back-breaking drudgery."
We're accustomed to reading about the gender wage gap, but the burden of women's additional unpaid responsibilities often goes overlooked. In addition to earning less money, women are also working for longer, and the two things are linked: Having caring or domestic responsibilities limits your economic potential.
"Women have this burden of unpaid work that wraps around their entire day," Fry argues. "Crucially, it limits their opportunities to earn an income, so what we find is that women are often in precarious, vulnerable forms of labor they can fit around their responsibilities, such piecework like sewing or cleaning or tiny roadside businesses that don't make much money at all."
While the report samples women aged 15 to 69, many girls actually begin contributing to their family economically well before adolescence. Fry uses the example of a young girl going to market with her mother before school. "In developing countries, girls in particular begin providing their labor to their households when they're very young."
Fry argues that not enough has been done by the international community to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015, a year on. In particular, merely reducing income inequality and addressing the pay gap isn't enough to actually change women's lives.
She believes that real progress will only be achieved when we recalibrate the burden of unpaid work in a more balanced way and address systemic and structural violence against women and girls. "We need progressive taxation, minimum wages, decent public services, equal pay legislation and early childhood care and education."
In particular, we need to move beyond an economic model that views female labor only in terms of financial reward, and to look more at how women are spending their time: As in, do they have any spare time at all?
"The issue of time poverty is not well recognized," Fry says. She explains that women—and men—will always have unpaid domestic work to do, and this isn't a bad thing. "It's what makes us human, caring for one another. But we want it to be fair and equal and not excessively onerous. If we freed up that time, think of everything women could achieve with all those extra hours?"