Double burden

The term “double burden” (or “second shift” as coined by Arlie Hochchild) refers to the workload of persons (typically women) who work at paid jobs while also having responsibility for a significant portion of unpaid care work. Marilyn Frye’s 1988 book, If Women Counted, was one of the first to call attention to the distortions in our understanding of economic activity when unpaid care work, which could equal or exceed paid work in a given economy, is not included in national accounts.

Our quality of life is related in part to the balance we achieve between work (structured mental or physical effort to achieve a results) and leisure (unstructured time for enjoyment). When we think of work, we typically think of paid work; indeed, women are often still asked the demeaning question, “Do you work,” meaning “do you get paid for your work.” While there are women who do not have paid work positions, there are virtually no women who do not engage in unpaid work. Our lives and our livelihoods depend on a wide range of unpaid work activities including care of persons, housework, and voluntary community work. While paid work is typically acquired based on skill, unpaid work continues to be assigned by gender regardless of skill or interest.

A 2014 OECD study, Unpaid Care Work: The Missing Link in the Analysis of Gender Gaps in Labour Outcomes, underscores the continuing gender inequalities in taking responsibility for all of the necessary tasks in a household and community. Its findings include the following:

  • Women around the world devote two to ten times more hours on unpaid care work than do men.
  • Unequal distribution of unpaid care work by gender is an infringement of women’s rights and a brake on their economic empowerment.
  • While there are regional and socioeconomic variations, gender inequalities in unpaid care work exist in all societies and at all income levels despite the economic ability of higher income families to outsource unpaid care activities.
  • Expectations around women’s unpaid care activities shape female labour force participation rates as much as access to education and a decrease in number of children.
  • In order to reconcile care responsibilities with the demands of paid employment, women often resort to “occupational downgrading” to employment below their skill level with poorer working conditions.

Achieving gender parity in care responsibilities will involve both recognizing and measuring the contribution of unpaid care work as well as adopting more family-friendly policies.