Why businesses are addressing unpaid care work

Sarah Hall Gender, Inequality, Participation and Leadership, Private sector, Women's Economic Empowerment

Sarah Hall, Oxfam’s Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care (WE-Care) Programme Manager, explores what businesses stand to gain from easing the burden of unpaid care and domestic work.

A productive, healthy workforce is the backbone of any successful business. A ground-breaking new report from Oxfam and Unilever shows how businesses are identifying and addressing the challenges that limit workers’ full participation. A hidden, and often underestimated barrier, is the unequal responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work that frustrates the progression and productivity of women employees. For many businesses globally, the first crucial step has been to recognise that this is a problem. 

Across the world, women do an average of more than three times the unpaid care work of men, rising to more than five times in poor, rural areas. Women spend around 4.5 hours a day on family care and domestic tasks, which increases dramatically with young children or ageing relatives.

Unpaid care work prevents women and girls from participating in economic, political, and social activities, including opportunities for education, employment, and entrepreneurship. This can impact the business landscape negatively, for example through high turnover or low productivity. If women were to play identical roles to men in the labour force, as much as 26 percent of the global annual gross domestic product (GDP) – or $28 trillion – could be realised by 2025. In part, this is dependent on men sharing care work responsibilities, and companies and governments investing in the infrastructure and services that help families to care – such as childcare, water and health centres. 

Since 2016, Oxfam and Unilever’s laundry brand, Surf, have been in a partnership to address unpaid care work – giving women more choices to improve the quality of their lives, and create a brighter future for their families. When their time is freed up from excessive care work, women are able to contribute more to the economy and to society. And businesses have a lot to gain in this process.

Benefits of addressing unpaid care and domestic work 

  • Talent acquisition and retention. Businesses with policies like paid parental or family leave and flexible work arrangements allow employees of all genders to manage care responsibilities. In return, they find it easier to attract and retain workers. 
  • Productivity and employee engagement. Employers who take a holistic view of workers’ lives – including their caregiving and household responsibilities – can help address aspects that cause distraction, fatigue, and absenteeism. This improves workforce performance and engagement.  
  • Supply chain resilience and diversity. Businesses that encourage employers in their supply chain to address unpaid care work issues can help build stable and diverse sources of supply. This bolsters their ability to mitigate risk and serve customer needs. 
  • Revenue and business growth. Developing products and services that address the causes and consequences of unequal unpaid care work – for example, time and labour-saving devices – can contribute to business growth. 
  • Customer acquisition and loyalty. Businesses that sell consumer goods and services can differentiate their brands, win new customers, and cement customer loyalty by challenging the dynamics that underpin unequal unpaid care work – such as gender stereotypes in advertising. 

What should businesses do to reap these benefits? 

  1. Commit. Strengthen existing corporate commitments to gender equality, women’s empowerment, and the Sustainable Development Goals with an explicit ambition to help reduce and redistribute the responsibility for unpaid care work. 
  2. Act. Take action on unpaid care and domestic work where it can have the biggest impact for women and girls, and for the business. 
  3. Advocate. Collaborate with other companies, industry associations, government, and civil society to marshal evidence and resources for policy-level change. 

Now is the time for senior executives to take a closer look at how unpaid care and domestic work is affecting their companies, and take further action to address this. We cannot tackle gender equality issues without talking about unpaid care and domestic work – and we cannot do it alone. Everyone must pitch in.  

Download the Business Briefing on Unpaid Care and Domestic Work from Oxfam and Unilever

Sarah Hall