Women’s Pay Is Lagging Because They’re Still Doing So Much Free Work

Supermajority Education Fund

February 11, 2020

On an average day, American women spend 37 percent more of their time on unpaid household, child care, and elder care than men, according to a new analysis released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and Oxfam.

For IWPR President and CEO Dr. C. Nicole Mason, one of the striking parts of the study was just how young this gender gap in unpaid work starts. Men between the ages of 15 and 24 perform unpaid care and household tasks for about 1.7 hours each day while women in the same age range complete an average of 3.7 hours of this work, which is 54 percent more time.

“We don’t know if this is because of socialization or gender cultural expectations, but [women are] taking on the lion share of this work,” Mason told Supermajority News. “We tend to think we’ve gotten more progressive with regards to gender roles, but we still have a way to go.”

As more women become mothers or primary caregivers, this trend becomes more entrenched. Women between the ages of 25 and 34 perform an average of 8 unpaid hours a day compared to men in their age bracket who only perform 3.9 hours. The amount of unpaid labor spikes for women ages 35 to 44, who perform nearly 9 hours (8.8) of unpaid care labor compared to men’s 5.2 hours each day.

As men and women age, the number of unpaid hours each group spends on care work gets closer together, but still never meets. By the last age bracket in the analysis — people 62 and over — women perform, on average, 4.4 hours of unpaid work each day compared to men, who perform 3.5 hours each day.

Throughout women’s lives, the financial effects of their unpaid work are further exacerbated by the wage gap, which is worse for women from marginalized communities. On average, women make 82 cents for every $1 a man makes, but Indigenous women make 58 cents, and Latinas make 53 cents for every male dollar. 

Women are also professionally punished for taking on more unpaid work, too. When women come back to the workforce, “it’s often in a different position or in lower pay, or they start climbing the ladder all over again,” Mason said. “Women economically are the ones penalized because they don’t actually have a choice.”

To solve this problem, “we need family-friendly policies so women have support to provide care work, without choosing between careers and care for their families,” Mason said, but we also need to shift gender roles and expectations. 

“We can have really great policies on the books, but if men are penalized for off-ramping to provide care work, they’re less likely to take advantage of those policies,” she explained. “If the expectation in a family is that women are supposed to provide most or majority of unpaid care work when women don’t want to or can’t, it becomes the expectation that they should.”