How Unpaid Labor Widens The Gender Wealth Gap

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How Unpaid Labor Widens The Gender Wealth Gap

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I wonder how many more women would be actively involved in investing and managing the household finances if their spouses would wash the dishes once in a while.

It’s no secret that American women in heterosexual relationships are still responsible for a disproportionate share of unpaid labor like cleaning the house, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and planning family activities. It’s a pattern that holds true even among younger generations, even among women who out earn their partners, and even in families where men are unemployed.

Independent of relationship status, a 2018 OECD report found that U.S. women were doing an average of 242 minutes of unpaid work compared with 148 minutes for men – an extra 94 minutes.

Similarly, a 2020 report found women in the United States spend 37% more time doing unpaid care work than men. That’s about 95 extra 8-hour work days each year for no pay.

When you add both paid and unpaid work together, women still work longer hours. And these gaps have grown even wider since the onset of the pandemic.

We’ve seen the cost of all that extra unpaid labor first hand. In the summer of 2020, millennial mothers were nearly three times more likely than millennial fathers to report being unable to work due to a school or child care closure during lockdowns. Women were significantly more likely than men to report forgoing paid employment to care for others – a gap that widened over the course of the pandemic. And the gap between women and men reporting burn out doubled between 2020 and 2021.

Set against this backdrop of women across America reaching their breaking point, I came across these familiar headlines:

Stop Letting Your Man Make These Financial Decisions Without You

Wealthy Millennial Women Defer to Husbands on Investing

Women Need to Take a More Active Role in their Financial Future

Data consistently point to women being far less likely to engage in long-term financial planning and investment decisions than their male counterparts, contributing to an already gaping gender wealth gap in which American women own just 32 cents for every dollar owned by their male counterparts – a gap that’s even greater for women of color.

With women living longer and earning less than men on average, the stakes of the gender wealth gap are significant. According to a report from the National Institute of Retirement Security, the income of women aged 65 and older is 25% lower than that of their male counterparts. By age 80, that gap widens to 44%. As a result, women over age 65 are 80% more likely than men to live in poverty.

Prior to retirement, less wealth can also mean fewer options – less ability to leave abusive living, working or relationship environments. Fewer resources to care for children, elderly relatives and other family members. Less access to financing for wealth building assets like homes, businesses and more.

So yes, it’s important that women engage with their finances – and not just day-to-day household budgeting, but investing, wealth building and long-term financial planning as well.

But much like the overwhelming and disproportionate demands of unpaid labor impact women’s ability to earn equally, so too can it impact women’s ability to build wealth equally.

In other words, confronting the gender wealth gap means taking into account the reality that financial planning and decision making doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists within a deeply inequitable landscape in which women, especially women of color, are underpaid, overburdened and already pushed past the point of burnout with limited, if any, bandwidth to spare.

And while there is some acknowledgment of the ways in which gender and racial pay gaps contribute to gender and racial wealth gaps (which we’ve explored in greater depth here), even the most well-meaning advice seems to overlook and underestimate the impact of unpaid labor when it comes to the work of wealth building.

So when I read these headlines like: Women Need to Take a More Active Role in their Financial Future, I find myself torn between acknowledging that truth while questioning where the corresponding directives are for the workplaces, institutions, and yes, male partners, to enable that.

“Men have largely embraced gender equality when it comes to paid work, but research has found that these attitudes rarely extend to childcare responsibilities,” notes one 2020 report on the disproportionate share of women pushed out of the workplace. The data suggest this mentality extends to household responsibilities as well, leaving women with a familiar problem – a disproportionate share of unpaid responsibilities that inhibit not only the time, energy and resources they have to earn wealth, but to manage it too.

Expanding our focus from unequal pay to include the distribution and valuation of unpaid labor is the missing half of the gender revolution, says Jill Yavorksy, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte in a 2020 interview, saying-

“Our efforts to increase gender equality over the past several decades have really focused on changing women’s behaviors and opportunities, not men’s.”

She goes on to point out that the unpaid tasks still overwhelmingly shouldered by women, like cleaning the house, organizing children’s schedules, meal planning, shopping and prepping – are routine, boring, and constant, taking time away from both paid labor and household labor like money management that has potential for meaningful financial gain.

That potential for gain may be why long-term financial planning is one of the unpaid tasks men in heterosexual relationships are more willing take care of. And for their already overburdened partners, having one less thing to do, regardless of the nature of that work, can be a relief.

“For once I would not be in charge of the household office work,” writes Gemma Hartley in her viral essay on emotional labor. “I would not have to make the calls, get multiple quotes, research and vet each service, arrange payment and schedule the appointment. The real gift I wanted was to be relieved of the emotional labor of a single task that had been nagging at the back of my mind.” While in this essay Hartley is writing about her wish for her husband to book a cleaning service for Mother’s Day, the toll of the unpaid work she typically manages on a day-to-day basis is clear.

“I was the manager of the household, and that being manager was a lot of thankless work. Delegating work to other people, i.e. telling him to do something he should instinctively know to do, is exhausting [….] Reminding him of his family’s birthdays, carrying in my head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit the kids when we go out, keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry,” writes Hartley.

In this context, any task that can be offloaded, especially without the extra work of constant reminding or ‘nagging’ is an understandable relief. Especially when that task might be unfamiliar – like investing – demanding time, space and bandwidth that women are increasingly less likely to have without major changes to the way the low recognition, low reward and time intensive household labor and care work they’re already doing is supported institutionally and distributed personally.

There is no getting around the reality that women, like men, need to be engaged in their long-term financial planning and wealth building, but the responsibility for enabling equal engagement needs to be more equally shared.

For more on what we miss when talking about the gender wealth gap, check out: The Gender Investing Gap Isn’t About Confidence, It’s About Compensation

And remember to join us for more conversations like this one by subscribing to “Too Ambitious”.

Image: Johner Images Royalty-Free via GettyImages

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