The Invisible Backbone of the World’s Economy

The Invisible Backbone of the World’s Economy

This article is part of the Forum Network series on the New Societal Contract and International Co-operation and feeds into the 2019 G7 Youth Summit taking place in Paris 9-14 June.

As leaders from across the world start to draft resolutions and negotiate proposals for the 45th annual G7 Summit in Paris, France, one theme continues to be pervasive: gender equality. While significant progress has been made in advancing women’s rights through global campaigns and political representation, the 2018 World Economic Forums’ Global Gender Gap Report projects the overall and economic gender gaps will take 108 and 202 years to close, respectively.

Source: World Economic Forum - Global Gender Gap Report 2018

For the first time in the history of the G7 (formerly known as G8), the French presidency has become the first nation to create a “gender equality” label. A first of its kind, the equality label, awarded to the 2019 Summit by a French standardisation agency, will raise awareness and declare international support for gender equality. While these initiatives are a step forward at the annual meeting – at which none of the seven Sherpas are women – conversation alone among high-level delegates will not eliminate the economic structural barriers that women face globally.

One of the significant barriers to achieving global gender equality is the disproportionate burden of unpaid work on women. This restricts women from taking up paid jobs, enrolling in school, pursuing skill training and participating in public life. According to the International Labor Organization, women in Asia and the Pacific do four times more unpaid care work than men. Furthermore, UNDP’s Human Development Report stated rural women from Sub-Saharan Africa spend about 40 million hours a year collecting water. These imbalances in division of labor, coupled with the fact that women tend to underreport employment as contributing family members, create gaps in our understanding of global economic value. 

Photo by Crystal de Passillé-Chabot on Unsplash

Despite the enormous economic worth from women’s contribution to the informal economy, lack of proper quantification has led to incredible oversight in global gross domestic product (GDP). It is estimated by the United Nation Research Institute for Social Development that, if women’s unpaid work was assigned a monetary value, it would constitute anywhere from 10-39% of GDP. Translated to output per year, in 2015 the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that women’s participation in the informal economy amounts to roughly USD 10 trillion.

Insisting on metrics to track women’s informal contributions in the labour market would improve our understanding of gender inequality in the workplace. Women working in the informal economy lack workforce stability, receive lower wages and are subject to harassment. Overlooking these indicators undermines the ability of world leaders to create fiscal and non-fiscal policies. Therefore, using GDP (as it is currently calculated) to influence investment decisions and as a proxy for well-being is a major concern and blind spot.

Supplementing the GDP of a nation with other metrics, such as the genuine progress indicator (GPI), can be used to take a fuller account of a nation’s well-being. By incorporating familial economic contributions and numerous other social and environmental factors, GPI is intended to provide citizens with a more accurate representation of the nation’s overall condition. According to the International Labor Organization, measurement of unpaid work can be done in three distinct ways: implementing consistent time-use surveys, quantifying unpaid work and creating satellite accounts of household labour. Results from these analyses can be used to shape key indicators for GPI to illustrate the gap GDP does not take into account. In the United States, multiple states have taken measures to adopt GPI to implement local policy. From 2014-2015, Maryland saw an USD 8.48 billion increase in GPI consisting of improvements in employment, higher education and value of unpaid labour. Moving towards new and improved ways of quantifying global inequality will benefit not only women, but also the world as a whole. 


As grassroots organisations tirelessly work to advance women’s rights across the globe, our world leaders need take a hard look at sustainable policy reform. They need to work together to bring visibility to the underrepresentation of women in the workforce and actively level out the division of labour across the world. This starts with quantifying the informal economy, encouraging female education and advancing skill development.

Counting women’s unpaid work is not a choice – it is a global financial necessity.  

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Related Topics

Gender Equality Sustainable Development Goals

G7 Youth Summit Paris 2019Banner Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash