Unpaid care work is especially noticeable when schools have to close and homeschooling is on the schedule, or even when family members are quarantined or isolated. Here, it is mostly the women who have a hand in taking care of children, relatives or even acquaintances and neighbors, running errands, etc. The pandemic demonstrates the fragility of our economic system: not only are supply chains interrupted, but the closure of the care infrastructure (daycare centers, schools, etc.) means that less labor is available to the economy.

The extent of unpaid work is already enormous in a normal year. For 2016, the Swiss Federal Statistical Office reports 9.2 billion hours of unpaid work. That is 16 percent more than was spent on paid work (7.9 billion hours). The total unpaid work performed in 2016 is estimated to have a monetary value of 408 billion Swiss francs. Unpaid work here refers to activities that are not remunerated but could theoretically be performed by a third party in return for payment. This includes housework and family work, but also voluntary and honorary work in associations and organizations (institutionalized volunteering) and personal assistance for acquaintances and relatives who do not live in the same household. In this context, women took on 61.3 percent of the unpaid work volume in 2016, while men took on 61.6 percent of the paid work volume.

These numbers should make us sit up and take notice: The care economy is a weighty factor in the overall national economy, both in terms of time invested and financial dimension. The volume is considerable! And yet, the full extent of unpaid care work is not shown anywhere in the GDP, and it does not appear in any national budget. Feminist economists are working on developing other economic models that make care work visible in the entire national budget. In a Corona year, women are expected to take on an even larger share of unpaid work. This is also indicated by the results of research conducted by UN Women: Women are now spending even more time raising children and doing housework. Data from 38 countries around the world show that women are bearing the brunt of additional childcare and domestic responsibilities due to the pandemic. That’s why UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns:

“The Covid 19 crisis threatens to undermine what has been achieved [in terms of gender equality].”

But: care work is not only dependent on family organization. The “Care Diamond” model (Razavi 2007) identifies four institutional domains: Household/Family, State/Public Sector, Market (Profit Sector), and Non-Profit Sector. The Care Diamond shows that care work is dependent on the tensions and dynamics between the four institutional domains. Families or households are not the only players in this business. Government regulations, the economy, etc. also influence unpaid work. If, for example, the supply of childcare in Switzerland were doubled (market and/or non-profit sector) and made available much more cheaply, e.g. through government subsidies, this would change the situation in families. It then becomes easier for both parents to work full time. Care work would then probably shift more away from the family, the economy would have more workers, and these would be available for longer. The introduction of a 30-hour week for all could also contribute to a more balanced distribution of care work between women and men. This approach would free up more care resources in the family, especially for men. For companies, however, women and men would be equally valuable as workers, since both also have limits due to the care work performed.

The figures quoted above show: Economy is only possible with unpaid care work in the background. It would therefore be in the interest of the economy and of us as women leaders to invest in paid care work. The childcare infrastructure plays an important role in this. In regions with good childcare provision, women are three times more likely to work full-time than in regions where there is a lack of childcare provision. Full-time work among women in turn improves their chances of advancement in companies. This counteracts vertical segregation. At the same time, paid care work should be upgraded and better rewarded. Care professions are often not even considered by young men when choosing a career because they are less well paid. A more balanced wage structure in the care sector can counteract horizontal segregation. If we have learned anything in the last year, it is this: paid and unpaid care work are systemically relevant. It is worthwhile for us to engage in both.


This article was first published in the magazine Ladies Drive.

About the author(s)

Portrait Gudrun Sander 246

Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sander Director Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion


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