International Women’s Day: Generation Equality and care work for everyone

Dr Kelly Dombroski

Talk for UN Aotearoa International Women’s Day Brunch, 8 March 2020


International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the women in your life, and it is great to see you all here doing that. The unspoken question here is why do we need a special day for women?

Actually – as an aside — that isn’t an unspoken question, I can bet you $100 if you go on Twitter right now and look for the hashtag for international women’s day, someone will be asking ‘when is the men’s day hur hur hur’. Funny you should ask, brother, it is November 19th. And, I don’t know whose idea of a joke this is, it is also international Toilet Day. Look it up. Also an important day to commemorate, for many actual serious reasons.

So back to the question – why do we need a special day for women? There are many answers to this question, but the one that is most relevant today with our theme of equality, is somewhat complex. It has to do with raising awareness of how far we have come and how far we need to go in equality, and for me, that lies around valuing the work that – globally – women usually take responsibility for.

What do I mean by women’s work?

Research reports from all over the world have consistently shown that women spend more hours than men on unpaid work in every country of the world. Much of this is household labour and care work, but it also includes volunteer work.

There are different labour requirements to keeping society running in different parts of the world. I can turn on my tap in three places in my house and get running water, and three places in my yard. I have a flush toilet and a shower and a washing machine. World Toilet Day sounds weird to my family only because they have always had a toilet and no one has to empty buckets or walk to collect water for sanitation and hygiene.

Yet despite this diversity in the amount of unpaid labour required to keep households going, women did more of this work than men in every part of the world. Unpaid labour, everywhere, is more common for women than men, even when women are working in paid labour as well.

For example, women in Mexico do around 383 ‘minutes per day’ (6 hours) while men do 187 (3 hours). In Japan, women did 224 minutes (4 hours) per day while men only did 41 minutes. Even in Denmark, who were the highest achieving men in terms of unpaid labour, they were outperformed by women by 57 minutes – that is almost an hour! On the flipside, men seem to be high achievers in leisure time, everywhere in the globe. While it is varied across place and culture, women’s leisure time is less than men’s everywhere.[1]

Women's unpaid work

So – what are they doing – what is unpaid work? And why is it so important? Recently, a report examining women’s experiences of balancing unpaid care work with paid work was released from IDS – institute for development studies. The authors of this report examined women’s care work and paid work globally. They note that the kinds of unpaid labour that women are doing is essential for survival of the household: it includes, “directly caring for people; household tasks such as cooking, cleaning and washing; and the ancillary unpaid work of gathering water, fuel, food, and related necessary tasks” (Chopra and Zambelli 2017, 3).

Traditionally, researchers have defined work as any task that is undertaken for livelihood. Dictionaries often define work something like “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result”. If we think of work in scientific terms, it is measured in kilojoules, effort expended. This report does not include managerial labour, what Elizabeth Emens calls ‘life admin’ (Emens 2019), nor does it include emotional labour, which Arlie Hoschild described in the 1980s as being the work that people like flight attendants did to manage their own and others emotions in high stake situations (Hochschild 2012). Women of colour and minority women are even more likely to perform this labour, as bell hooks argues (hooks 1989).

Much of the work that we describe as unpaid labour, globally, is in fact broadly care work. Where researchers define care as “a species activity that includes all we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so we might live in it as well as possible” according to Joan Tronto (Tronto 1993, 103).

So what does this extra workload of care mean for women globally? In Chopra and Zanelli’s report exploring women’s experiences of balancing paid and unpaid work they find that

“…women welcome the chance to earn income of almost any kind,”


“their paid work options are few and poorly paid, and by no means contribute to their ‘economic empowerment’. “

The reason for this is understood to be because they are

“Constrained [in] their ‘choices’ … they are forced to fit poorly remunerated, insecure and arduous earning in alongside…”

–and this is important —

“…the unrecognised and undervalued work of giving birth to and caring for infants and young children, the continual drudgery of household tasks such as laundry, food preparation and cooking, and the arduousness of fulfilling the basic needs of water and fuel.” (Chopra and Zanelli, 2017, 3)

There is a lot going on here, and we have a short amount of time. So I am going to focus on the ‘unrecognised and undervalued work of giving birth and caring for infants and young children’ and ‘the continual drudgery of household tasks’, and why this unpaid work is implicated in women’s equality.

But I am going to argue that the primary goal of our efforts at increasing equality is not to make women act more like men, but to a) value the care work that women are doing and b) make space for all people to participate in this valuable care work – which is more than drudgery.

My point is that gender equality is not about making more women act like men, but about proliferating the valuable care work across society regardless of gender.

Equality: more than being like a man

Feminist activism and writing has come a long way, and followed many twists and turns. In the Western societies, we call the ‘first wave’ of feminism the social movements that gave women the vote. What is revealing when you read the debates around these times was not that feminists were trying to be ‘the same as ‘men’, but that a very strong argument was made for the moderating moral influence of women. Indeed, it is well known by many of you that the organisation mostly responsible for activism around the vote in New Zealand was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who were wanting the vote to help curb men’s alcohol use. More recently, in what we often call the ‘second wave’ of feminism in the western world, women began to agitate around access to employment and paid work.

My grandmother was a teacher in the 1950s when she married my grandfather. She didn’t declare she was married because the expectation was you had to leave your job. By the time her 4 children were all at school, times had changed and she could access employment more easily as a medical receptionist, often carrying the family financially when my grandfather was between building contracts. My mother recalls having to step up to do all the cooking when this happened: her older brother was not considered capable of that chore.

On the one hand, this illustrates the way that women’s lives are constrained by unequal practices around paid labour. But it also illustrates something else. Can you think what it is?

It also illustrates the way in which men are socialised away from care labour – they have been excluded and prevented through indirect masculine socialisation and direct policies that prevent them from participating in this important social work.

The third wave of feminism then, in the west, often refers to the shift from thinking about women’s access to employment to thinking about gender relations. The third wave has paid attention to the kinds of bodies that we grow up in, and how we are expected to act in those bodies. It has also been a time of thinking about difference. What does it really mean to be equal, when not only women and men are different, but our bodies and genders are diverse? Being a Samoan woman in New Zealand is different from being a Pākehā woman, for example. Being a queer woman is different from being a straight woman and a straight man is different from being gender diverse. And the experiences and meanings and outcomes for inequality and health are all different whether you are in China or Bangladesh is different again from New Zealand or Nigeria or Indonesia.

How do we imagine – or reimagine – equality in this context? What are we working towards? It is here that I turn to the work of Marilyn Waring and back to the idea of paid and unpaid care labour.

Gender equality – what does it really mean?

Marilyn Waring, as many of you will know, was a young woman MP in the national party in the 1970s. One of her jobs early on was on the treasury committee. It was here that she was horrified to discover that the UN system of national accounts did not account for much of the labour that women were responsible for. Women on the farm in her electorate of Waikato were thought of as ‘farmer’s wives’ who were not economically productive, even if they participated – unpaid – in docking, lambing, shearing and the like, or equally importantly, fed the workers and kept the home garden and preserves going. Likewise, mothers who were volunteers at Playcentre, the cooperative childcare and early learning centres that feature all over NZ, their hours of labour did not count. All these things contribute to livelihoods – we need this labour to keep the country going. But they did not contribute to the GDP and were rendered invisible to Treasury. And this affected the way that decisions were made.

Waring’s work is important because when we think about gender equality in a simplistic sense, we often think about women ‘getting to do’ the same things as men. We think about promotions, we think about representation in parliament – how many women vs men. We think about leadership and awards and wages. We try to solve potential problems through making women’s lives look more like men’s lives. The IDS report I mentioned earlier was investigating how women could be better incorporated into paid employment in the Global South, for example. And these thing are vitally important.

However, what Waring points out is that the problem is not that women do the ‘wrong’ kind of labour – because this labour is vital for society – the problem is that it is not recognised as important, or, when it is, it is positioned as uniquely natural to women – The Ladies ‘god bless them’, the Ladies ‘god help us’. Waring moved on into the university system, and founded the area of feminist economics that explores much of this internationally. Her books If Women Counted (Waring 1988), Counting for Nothing , and Counting for Something! (Waring 2003, Waring 1999) and Still Counting (Waring 2018) invite us to consider how we can better measure the contribution of women to the economy, globally. She often uses a story from Tanzania to illustrate how women present themselves and are presented by others as ‘not working’ – while performing hard labour from before dawn to well after dusk with very little leisure time.

The problem is also the way we think about the economy. We can imagine the economy as a bit like an iceberg, where the things we usually think of as part of the economy are ‘above the water line’ – paid jobs, businesses, markets, private property and assets, formal finance – but below the waterline – and remember this is vast – are all the other things that contribute to the livelihood and maintenance of the household and the society.[2] The root word of economy is oikos, referring to the management of a household. We should pay attention to all these things in our accounting and valuing systems. Indeed, this becomes even more important as we move towards “degrowth” economies as a response to climate change (Jackson 2017).


So what does it do when we pay attention to all these activities under the waterline? The childcare, the co-ops, the exchanges of barter and gifting and koha and working bees?

One effect of paying attention to this is that it becomes clear, globally, that women are active economically. A recent study reported on in the New York Times valued the unpaid labour of women globally at 10.9 trillion USD.[3]

This affects the way we do ‘development projects’. When development workers enter a community, they can then assume that women are already economically active, and probably have very little spare time. Gender equality and economic empowerment might go hand in hand, but we need to be clear about the important work already being done and thinking about how to share that care work out further, rather than pile additional expectations on women without considering the full picture.

It also means that when we consider what gender equality might look like, we are attentive to the particular economic makeup of the place at hand, the particular things under the waterline that might need to be attended to. Remember that the minutes of unpaid labour were vastly different in different countries around the world. I’m going to finish with a few examples.

Equality and diversity around the world

In the Pacific, my colleagues worked with communities in the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu to map firstly the diverse economic activities all were involved in (Carnegie, McKinnon and Gibson 2019, McKinnon et al. 2016, Carnegie et al. 2012). They used a coconut as the example rather than an iceberg.[4] Women and men listed all the kinds of activities below the water line and above the waterline. What emerged were just how many activities people participated in that kept communities going — people were already very economically active if we take our diverse understanding of economy. Secondly, the team then started labelling which of these activities were gendered – that is, were expected to be done by women or men, or both together.


The effect of this was to show that women’s economic activities were significant, as of course were men’s. Next, the team worked in groups to identify with women and men (separately, then together) what gender equality would look like. One of the ideas that emerged was that of “Household togetherness”. This was about publically recognising the work that was necessary for households to survive (that women did), and negotiating around its redistribution – men doing a fairer share of the work and expressing a sense of appreciation for this work. There was also some discussion about how from this start point of valuing contributions, traditional roles could be extended or challenged.

A second project is my PhD student in Indonesia. Ririn Haryani has worked for ASEAN and the UN in disaster risk preparedness. Her work is looking at ASEAN women’s contributions to disaster risk preparedness, beginning with the observation that there were more women in leadership doing this in the Philippines than in Indonesia. Ririn initially set out to berate Indonesia, but then spent some time mapping out the kinds of disaster preparedness activities women were already involved in ‘below the waterline’. She used Indonesian theories of taman siswa to explain different types of leadership ‘from the front’ ‘from the middle’ and ‘from behind’. Her vision of equality in her work is for all kinds of leadership to first be recognised as valid.[5]

Finally, in my own work on mothering and care in China, Australia and New Zealand (Dombroski 2020, Dombroski 2018), I have used this same approach to think about how the carework often closely associated with mothering is vitally relationship building. I have looked at how sharing this carework with fathers and other men is not about releasing women to be more like men in the workforce, but equally about providing men with the opportunity to be involved in the deep, relational, embodied work of caring for others – children in my work, but also can be extended to others. Because I think we can all agree that we need more care, not less. We all require care to start, continue and at the end of our lives.

If the effect of these efforts is to increase the visibility of the important care work, they are contributing to gender equality. If the effect of these efforts is that all kinds of work are valued as important in our economy, they are contributing to gender equality. And if we are able to see the diversity of places and cultures and ways of supporting and caring and organising economies as important start points for locally-led change, we might be able to better contribute to global equality too.

Check out our new book, The Handbook of Diverse Economies,featuring a chapter on care labour developing the ideas above. Order it for your library!



Carnegie, M., K. McKinnon & K. Gibson (2019) Creating community-based indicators of gender equity: A methodology. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, Earlyview.

Carnegie, M., C. Rowland, K. Gibson, K. McKinnon, J. Crawford & C. Slatter. 2012. Gender and economy in Melanesian communities: A manual of indicators and tools to track change. University of Western Sydney, Macquarie University and International Women’s Development Agency.

Chopra, D. & E. Zambelli (2017) No time to rest: Women’s lived experiences of balancing paid work and unpaid care work.

Dombroski, K. (2018) Learning to be affected: Maternal connection, intuition and “elimination communication”. Emotion, Space and Society, 26, 72-79.

Dombroski, K. 2020. Caring labour: redistributing care work. In The Handbook of Diverse Economies, eds. J. K. Gibson-Graham & K. Dombroski, 154-162. Edward Elgar.

Emens, E. 2019. The Art of Life Admin: How To Do Less, Do It Better, and Live More. Penguin UK.

Hochschild, A. R. 2012. The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Univ of California Press.

hooks, b. 1989. Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. South End Press.

Jackson, T. 2017. Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow. London and New York: Routledge.

McKinnon, K., M. Carnegie, K. Gibson & C. Rowland (2016) Gender equality and economic empowerment in the Solomon Islands and Fiji: a place-based approach. Gender, Place & Culture, 23, 1376-1391.

Tronto, J. 1993. Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. Psychology Press.

Waring, M. 1988. If women counted. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

—. 1999. Counting for nothing: what men value and women are worth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

— (2003) Counting for something! Recognising women’s contribution to the global economy through alternative accounting systems. Gender & Development, 11, 35-43.

—. 2018. Still counting. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.

[1] Last accessed March 6th 2020.

[2] last accessed 8 March 2020

[3] last accessed 8 March 2020.

[4] Wonderful graphics available at Last accessed 8 March 2020

[5][5] Last accessed 8 March 2020.

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