Estimating the Value of Women’s Unpaid Work in Asia’s Homes

Bhutan is working to capture the value to society of child care and other work done in the home. Photo: ADB
Bhutan is working to capture the value to society of child care and other work done in the home. Photo: ADB

By Valerie Mercer-Blackman

Work done within the home, including caring for children, is extremely important to society but undervalued and poorly tracked. 

In a world dominated by the production of goods, it is easy to measure gross domestic product, at least conceptually. Every good or tangible service produced is valued as its market price multiplied by the quantity sold. The price reflects the confluence of cost (supply) and scarcity (demand). Nowadays, the price of the good or service exchanged—at least as reported by firms—is no longer associated with the value of the final good.

Take a mobile phone: the price is $280-$500 depending on the storage, memory, features etc. But how you use the phone or what you use it for, the apps you have or the access it provides you to information, the thousands of pictures you can take and send on social media, is not included in the purchase price. Sure, someone is paying for apps, possibly through advertisements. But it is no longer easily trackable. Indeed, many of the services are free to the final user.

There is also the issue of divisibility in digital services. Let’s suppose two people buy the same phone and pay for the same internet package from the same service provider. User A uses the phone sporadically, while user B uses it for their work (to connect with customers) as well as to put together graphics and to post on social media. Both users pay exactly the same price, but user B got a cheaper rate ‘per unit’ than user A. The challenge of measuring the value creation in national accounts, possibly for millions of mobile cellphone users, is daunting.

However, there is one metric that at least reflects the difference in use and value creation between users A and B: the amount of time spent using the phone. In general, time is very valuable, particularly for those with multiple responsibilities. The distinction between leisure and work is becoming more blurred in the digital age with the existence of remote work, so measuring what individuals are actually doing is very important.

Moreover, the time spent with family and children--either playing with them, guiding them or reading to them--is extremely valuable to society, but is undervalued because it is considered ‘leisure’ according to traditional national accounts and thus has a value of zero. Women disproportionately carry out this work in all but a handful of countries.

  Bhutan is leading the way in measuring the time spent and value created by the work women do in the home.

Perhaps the only country that has seriously tried to grapple with these important measurement issues is Bhutan. It has developed the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index, a much better measure of welfare than gross domestic product, which uses a time-use survey as its main input. The time-use surveyors basically ask respondents how they spend their time and how they feel about it.  But it wants to do more. The Bhutan government in partnership with ADB conducted a study which found that unpaid care work is prevalent in Bhutan, equivalent to about 16% of GDP.

Women spend almost three times as much time in the household and doing unpaid care work than men regardless of income, age, residency, the number of people in the household, and employment status. This study, the first of its kind undertaken in Bhutan, contributes to the small but growing body of scholarly literature that attempts to measure and value unpaid care work, together with other developing nations like Nicaragua, El Salvador and developed countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

By quantifying the amount and value of that work, this study can be an important tool for policy makers’ efforts to advance economic development by finding ways to value and reward unpaid care work and ease the disproportionate burden borne by women.

The study also brings to light a more general problem: the many activities that are performed throughout Asia and the world are not always properly valued. There is an implicit assumption that those who command higher wages produce more valuable things for society. This may not necessarily be true, because some jobs, like teaching, cannot appropriate what externality or future benefit they create. Market prices for services do not necessarily provide the correct value because there is no adjustment for quality, divisibility and the actual revealed value that people give to them.

We need to have a better understanding of the value of all kinds of work, not just traditional paid work, and the efforts underway in Bhutan are a good example of how this can be done.