unpaid work


Prepared by Marion Werner, Leah F. Vosko, Angie Deveau, Giordana Pimentel and Deatra Walsh with past contributions from Abetha Mahalingam, Nancy Zukewich, Krista Scott-Dixon, Megan Ciurysek and Vivian Ngai


This module explores how particular forms of unpaid work – like caregiving, domestic work and volunteering – are defined, socially valued, organized, and gendered. Its purpose is twofold: to provide statistical data and library resources on the measurement of unpaid work in Canada, and to illustrate how unpaid work is shaped by gender relations as they intersect with “race“, ethnicity, (dis)ability, age, and sexuality. In addition, a demonstration using data from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey Cycles 12 and 19 on time use is included at the end of this conceptual guide.

Unpaid work refers to the production of goods or services that are consumed by those within or outside a household, but not for sale in the market (OECD 2011). An activity is considered “work” (vs. “leisure”) if a third person could be paid to do a certain activity (OECD 2011).

It is widely recognized that women – in Canada and beyond – perform the bulk of unpaid work in households and in the paid labour force (see for example: Luxton 1980; Mies 1986; Beneria 1999; Armstrong and Armstrong 2001; Zukewich 2002; Marshall 2006). This work is often socially, politically, and economically devalued because “work” is often defined in conventional statistics as paid activities linked to the market (Beneria 1999).  Despite the efforts of several generations of feminist scholars to make unpaid work visible, it remains marginalized in most methods of measuring economic activity.

In recent decades, many women’s groups have struggled to have unpaid work taken more seriously in national statistical surveys. In the 1990s, as a result of sustained and multi-faceted attempts by Canadian women’s groups to challenge statisticians on the notion that only paid labour contributes to production, Statistics Canada included an in-depth question about the amount of time individuals spent on unpaid work in the 1996 Census (Luxton and Vosko 1998). Over time, other national statistical agencies have devised guidelines and surveys for identifying and classifying various types of unpaid work (Picchio 1998; EUROSTAT 2004).

While the Census question on unpaid work still remains highly restrictive (e.g., it excludes many kinds of volunteer work and all forms of unpaid work in workplaces), the information about unpaid work and sex/gender divisions generated through it, and other data sources such as the General Social Survey (GSS) and the National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (NSGVP), is useful for understanding and critiquing existing public policies. Absences and gaps revealed through these data also provide a basis for formulating new questions, and therefore evidence-based policies, that better account for the total work performed in an economy (Picchio 1998).

Based upon this literature and available data to date, several useful subcategories help define unpaid work and demarcate the boundaries between its diverse forms of work and paid work. These subcategories include: unpaid informal caregiving; volunteering; unpaid domestic work; unpaid subsistence activities; unpaid family work; and unpaid work in paid workplaces. The contents of this module touch on each of these types of unpaid work and discuss how they intersect with the complex social locations of people who perform these activities.


Unpaid Informal Caregiving

Unpaid informal caregiving encompasses care and assistance provided by individuals to other individuals outside of civic or voluntary organizations (Zukewich 2002). This work is often similar in character to paid caregiving occupations such as those related to childcare provision, nursing, and home care. These are typically among the lowest paid occupations in the labour force.

The burden of unpaid informal caregiving falls disproportionately on women (Baxter et al. 2005; MacDonald et al. 2005). Unpaid informal caregivers are often family members, relatives, friends and volunteers (Zukewich 2002; Luxton 2006).  The recipients of care are usually children, elders, individuals who are ill or people with disabilities, as well as individuals within the paid workforce like supervisors, co-workers, and friends (see unpaid work in paid workplaces).  For example, in 2003, 62 percent of mothers were primary caregivers in homes where Canadian children with disabilities lived compared to three percent of fathers (Yantzi and Rosenberg 2008).  As women age, their care work seldom diminishes and may even increase (Gattai and Musatti 1999).  A large proportion of grandmothers are responsible for the care of their grandchildren (Bracke et al. 2008).  Moreover, increasing numbers of elderly women are responsible for the care of their husbands (Paun 2003).

Caregiving accounts for a large proportion of unpaid work performed by individuals. Although unpaid informal caregiving benefits society, as well as caregivers and care recipients, it still lacks social recognition and is not counted as part of a country’s productive output (Elson 1999; ILO 2007).  Feminist economists estimate that, were it to be counted, this type of work would account for at least half of a given country’s total Gross National Product (GNP) (Elson 1999; ILO 2007).  Thus, for some scholars conducting research in the area of gender and work, a central concern involves measuring and assigning value to unpaid informal caregiving, and highlighting the sex/gender divisions that exist when it comes to who performs such types of work. Some analysts, such as Zukewich (2003), argue that only when adequate tools are created to measure and value unpaid informal caregiving will we have a better understanding of how the social and economic costs of sustaining ourselves and dependents relate to individuals’ capacity to engage in the labour force.

Although men’s participation in childcare duties within dual-income families has increased over the last three decades, women remain responsible for the largest share of unpaid caregiving within the home despite their growing participation in paid employment (Marshall 2006).  Moreover, in single-earner households, 89 percent of mothers stay at home to fulfill caregiving responsibilities (Ibid.).  Given the gendered character of unpaid informal caregiving, women’s rights activists have advocated for state-supported universal childcare (see for e.g., Mahon 2000; Prentice 2004). Efforts to institute a universal program at the federal level have largely failed.  Provinces remain the main source of childcare subsidization and federal monies that could be put towards childcare are often used for other ends (e.g., tax credits, early learning initiatives etc.) (Battle 2006; Campbell 2006; Mahon 2006; Vosko 2006; Friendly et al. 2007). Since 1997, Québec has offered extensive support for childcare and remains the only Canadian province to do so.  Despite this advance, resources for childcare in Québec are not equitably distributed: children from working class and poor families access poorer quality facilities than their middle and upper class counterparts (Mahon 2006).

The growing participation of women in the paid workforce and the lack of state support for elder and child caregiving has created a “care deficit” in many countries of the global North.  To fill this gap, governments promote the immigration of women, many of whom are women of colour, from poorer countries in the global South (Pratt 2003; Lawson 2007; Beneria 2008).  This practice reproduces the care deficit in migrants’ home countries since women migrants are often legally restricted or economically unable to bring their children with them when they migrate to work (Pratt 2005; Beneria 2008; Raghuram et al. 2009).  It is also premised upon the growing number of temporary categories of migration and precarious forms of employment (see migration and precarious employment modules).


Unpaid work that extends beyond one’s own household into the households of others, and social institutions more broadly is generally classified as “volunteer work”.  These activities are integral to maintaining the labour force, although they are rarely recognized as such. Beneria (1999) defines volunteer work as unpaid work performed for recipients who are not members of the immediate family and for which there is no direct payment (see also Gaskin 2003; Taylor 2004).  Volunteer work includes both work done for formal organizations as well as help and care provided in an informal manner by individuals for other individuals.

Women’s volunteer work predominates in institutions and sectors that are associated with the feminized work of care such as schools, hospitals, and voluntary services related to elder and child care. In instances where these services are restructured, and fewer financial resources are dedicated to them, mostly female volunteers become essential sources of unpaid labour, tied to the overarching belief in a woman’s “natural” capacity to carry out care work (Denton et al. 2002; Baines 2004). In contrast, men are more likely than women to take on leadership roles in their volunteer work, as well as more maintenance, coaching or teaching positions (Rotolo and Wilson 2007).

Unpaid Work in Paid Workplaces

Various types of unpaid work are performed by individuals in the workplace itself and often misrecognized as volunteer work. As with other forms of unpaid work, the bulk of this work is undertaken by women. Forrest (1998) documents how women carry out unpaid work on-the-job outside their formal job requirements. These activities include cleaning, informal caregiving, serving other individuals, and maintaining interpersonal relations. The latter activity can involve empathy work: the often taxing efforts of employees to establish personal connections by means of listening and attending to the emotional needs of their clients, co-workers or employers (Kosny and MacEachen 2009). Despite the benefits of the various unpaid work activities to workplaces, they still remain largely invisible. There is a tendency among policy makers, employers, and analysts to define paid work as time and effort spent directly in the production of goods and services for the market and thus to discount unpaid work in the workplace.

This form of unseen and unpaid work can be strongly associated with female-dominated and feminized occupations and sectors. For example, Baines (2004; 2009) documents the increasing reliance upon unpaid work performed by mostly female employees in the social service sector.  These activities include unpaid policy- and service-building work, fundraising, and unpaid care for social service clients and their families. Restructuring of social services – linked to privatization – and declining state support for them have led to increased demands upon workers in this sector to perform these unpaid duties for their own or other service agencies.

Finally, unpaid work is being extended into paid workplaces through immigrant settlement processes. Many immigrants looking to access employment in their respective professional fields are required to gain “Canadian work experience” in the form of unpaid work.  While this work is officially termed “volunteer work”, it differs from standard definitions of volunteering (see above) in terms of motivation, experience, and sector (McLaren and Dyck 2004; Slade and Schugurensky 2010). Immigrants are compelled to undertake unpaid work due to their exclusion from the Canadian labour market.  Their unpaid work is not ancillary to workplaces, as helpers; rather, they perform similar functions as paid workers. Immigrants undertaking unpaid work to obtain “Canadian worker experience” not only perform unpaid work in non-profit or community agencies but also in for-profit companies (e.g., banks) and the public sector (Ibid).

Unpaid Domestic Work

An analysis of types of unpaid domestic work continues to reveal sex/gender divisions of labour in households.  Although the gap between men’s and women’s performance of domestic work has narrowed slightly, a greater share of housework in Canada continues to be performed by women (Marshall 2006).  Findings from the 2006 Census reveal little change in this pattern (e.g., see Statistics Canada 2006 Census Table). Although a majority of women engage in paid work, women remain disproportionately responsible for daily housework in dual-earner families. Thus, women carry the double burden of paid and unpaid work. Social context matters, however. The composition of families – especially the numbers and ages of children and multigenerational households – influence the number of hours spent on performing domestic duties, and the burden of this work on women (McMullin 2005; Marshall 2006).  The timing of life transitions, specifically ages of marriage and child-bearing, also shapes the distribution of unpaid domestic work between women and men partners in households (McMullin 2005). As McMullin observes in her study of generational patterns of unpaid work in Canadian families, women who married and had children early in life are more likely to undertake more unpaid domestic work responsibilities than their older female counterparts.

The home has long been a site where unpaid domestic work is combined with paid employment, especially for women.  Historically, paid work in the home (or homework) has been associated with women’s work in systems of industrial production in, for example, the garment industry (Scott 1988; Ng et al. 1999). The reorganization of industry and changes in information technology (see technology module)  have seen more workers in white collar occupations such as writers, editors, programmers, and software engineers shift to perform paid work in the home, with growing numbers of men working from home. Despite this shift, gendered divisions and uneven normative expectations regarding housework continue to persist in homes where paid work is also undertaken in either industrial or white collar sectors (Osnowitz 2005; see also: Bernstein et al. 2001; Mirchandani 2000). Men working from home are more likely to segregate paid work from unpaid housework in comparison to their female counterparts for whom this divide tends to be especially blurred, leading to longer hours of paid and unpaid work arranged in fragmented periods. The isolated and unregulated nature of homework tends to consolidate uneven gendered roles in these households (Ibid.).  Furthermore, women who shoulder the dual burden of paid labour and unpaid work in the home are more likely to suffer from related stress and adverse effects on their physical and mental health (MacDonald et al. 2005; Marshall 2006).

The list of unpaid domestic activities in the Canadian Census illustrates the diversity and indispensability of these activities. Tasks include meal preparation and clean-up; clothing care; cleaning; plant and garden care; home maintenance/management; care for children and adults; unpaid help to other households; shopping or obtaining services; travel as part of care or obtaining services; and unpaid work in family businesses. Each category of unpaid work also includes a subset of tasks. For example, care to children includes attending to their health needs, supervising their education, transporting them to school and other activities, “babysitting”, and so forth.

Unpaid Subsistence Activities

Subsistence and/or survival-based activities form yet another type of unpaid work performed predominantly by women that is socially undervalued and made invisible in economic accounts of work. Subsistence activities can include the cultivation of vegetables, fetching wood and water, and the care of livestock animals, especially important for farming households’ economies (Beneria 1999; Teitelbaum and Beckley 2006). While subsistence activities are often associated with so-called developing countries in the global South, they remain vital to livelihoods in industrial economies, especially in rural areas.  In rural communities in Canada, for example, subsistence activities are important not solely due to economic need; these also form part of communities’ cultural identity, heritage and survival (Teitelbaum and Beckley 2006).  Women’s participation in subsistence production tends to be underestimated, especially where it is classified as unpaid family work (Philipps 2008a; 2008b). Within the statistical component of this module, unpaid subsistence activities are not a central theme; however, the library resources linked to the module touch on this important form of unpaid work.

Unpaid Family Work

Unpaid family work refers to the direct contributions of unpaid family members to production for the market, work that is officially counted under another member of the household.  For example, one household member may be constructed legally as an owner or entrepreneur although the business may also rely upon the unpaid work of relatives who assist in the business’ operations (Philipps 2008a; 2008b). Unpaid family work is generally performed by women from diverse geographical and social locations, such as immigrants, farm wives and executive/political spouses.

In Canada, although initially associated with unpaid work on farms, unpaid family work is increasingly comprised of immigrant women and their family members who contribute to small businesses officially belonging to one member of the household (often, a male head of the household) (Philipps 2008a; 2008b). For example, the work of many Chinese immigrant women in Canada is categorized as unpaid in small businesses run by male heads of the household (Man 1997). Unpaid family work and its gendered dimensions also persist on farms. Women engage in long hours of on-farm unpaid work, activities also often combined with off-farm paid labour. Kubik and Moore (2005) document high rates of stress among Saskatchewan farm wives, linked to the triple burden of unpaid family work, unpaid domestic work, and paid off-farm labour.


There are two main sources for measuring unpaid work in this module: the Census of Population and the General Social Survey (GSS). Canada’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) may also be a supplementary source for measuring unpaid work. Each of these data sources are reviewed below.

The Census of Population (CNS) is conducted every five years and is the primary source for data on unpaid domestic work, such as childcare and housework. In the 1996, 2001, and 2006 Census long-form questionnaire, respondents were asked to indicate the amount of time they or other members of the household (15 years and older) spent in the week prior to enumeration on: (1) unpaid housework, yard work or home maintenance for members of the household, or others; (2) looking after one or more of the household’s children, or the children of others, without pay; and (3) providing unpaid care or assistance to one or more seniors. Because of its very large sample size, the Census is ideal for detailed cross-tabulations. It is restrictive in terms of subject matter, however, because it refers to “unpaid work” exclusively as “work relating to housework, caring for children, or providing care to seniors, without pay”, omitting other activities (Statistics Canada 2006).

The General Social Survey (GSS); Time Use Cycles (12 and 19) are useful to analyze alongside the Census because they include more unpaid activities, as measured through the one-day task time diary (e.g., “laundry” or “preparing food”), rather than general categories (such as “housework”). The key drawback of the GSS is that weekly averages calculated based on the one-day time diary must be pursued with caution. In addition, unlike the Census, the sample size is much smaller, making detailed analyses of the sample population less feasible.

The General Social Survey (GSS); Family Transitions Cycle 20 is also a useful supplement, not only to the Census but to the GSS Cycles on time use. While it is focused on trends in family structure, such as marriage, parenting, children, and fertility, it also addresses some aspects of work and includes other socioeconomic measures which may be pertinent to measuring unpaid work. The survey explores interactions of work and home. For example, reasons for working at home and the importance of access to parental benefits can be examined to explore how family commitments affect not only one’s paid but also unpaid work arrangements.

Other surveys can also provide useful indirect data on unpaid work. For example, the Labour Force Survey (LFS), as well as the Census itself, includes a category of “unpaid family workers” in its “class of worker” dimension. This variable enables researchers to measure the number of unpaid family workers overall, and to cross-tabulate it with other variables detailing activities such as unpaid family work on a farm. It is also possible to use the LFS to develop an analysis of dynamics surrounding the performance of unpaid work as it relates to the nature of workers’ labour force participation by considering dimensions such as “reasons for part-time work”. For example, two possible reasons for part-time work in the LFS include “caring for children” or “other personal or family responsibilities.” When cross-tabulated with sex, these dimensions indicate clearly that significant numbers of women engage in either part-time paid or self-employment in order to manage domestic demands (Vosko 2002). But, while the LFS is a supplementary source of data for unpaid work, this survey is not a focus in the remainder of this conceptual guide.


A series of activities are typically associated with unpaid work. Yet there is considerable debate among scholars as to what measures should be used to analyze its forms. Three measures, varying in their breadth, nevertheless dominate.

Group 1, the most inclusive and widely-used in Statistics Canada’s Total Work Accounts System (TWAS), encompasses any activity that is not done for pay, including personal care activities that can be delegated to a third person (e.g., washing and dressing but not sleeping or eating).

Group 2 is a more restrictive measure that includes only household work, caregiving, and related activities, along with social support, civic and voluntary activities. This approach is used by the GSS, and is the principal measure adopted in the GWD, included in the demonstrations below.

Group 3, as exemplified by Statistics Canada’s National Accounts System (NAS), includes only activities that are, or could conceivably be, the object of monetary exchange. This group includes the same range of household work and related activities, plus social support, civic, and voluntary activities, but with a more limited scope than the second group.

Indicators of Tasks and Activities

The GWD table UPW GSS12 A-1 uses the Group 2 definition. Activities included are:

a. Domestic work
i. Meal prep and cleaning
ii. Clothing care
iii. Cleaning
iv. Shopping or obtaining services

b. Home care/maintenance
i. Plant and garden care
ii. Home maintenance/management (including financial management)

c. Caregiving
i. Physical and medical care
ii. Education
iii. Other care
iv. Travel related to caregiving

d. Organizational/civic activities
i. Formal voluntary work with an organization, such as coaching or fundraising
ii. Informal voluntary work with individuals

The first three groups of activities may be further divided into work for one’s own household members, and work for non-household members, such as neighbours. The third category of caregiving may be divided further into care for children versus care for adults that are disabled, elderly, and/or ill.

In attempts to measure unpaid work, the indicators used may also be subdivided into two key areas: measurement of value and measurement of volume. Value measurements assign an economic worth to particular activities if they were to be performed for pay in a system of monetary exchange. Volume measurements use time instead of monetary equivalents and examine such factors as who is doing the work and for what length of time.

Indicator Subset 1: Value

Task and Activity Value

Feminist scholars have noted that unpaid work is devalued because it is performed without pay in a market-based economy that assigns value only to work that can be exchanged for compensation (See Part 1 for a more detailed discussion). It is often perceived as not generating any value in the context of a money-based economy despite its contribution to production for the market through the daily and intergenerational maintenance of people (i.e., to social reproduction) and production outside exchange relations. Moreover, much unpaid work, such as caregiving, is difficult to quantify. Still, the Total Work Accounts System developed by Statistics Canada recognizes that work contributing to social wealth need not be paid and that market and non-market work intersect (Statistics Canada 1996).

In order to better understand the economic and social contribution of unpaid work, there have been numerous attempts to measure the market worth of particular tasks. One approach, known as the specialist approach, involves examining occupational equivalency. In other words, if a person in a particular occupation were to perform an “unpaid work type” of task for pay, how much would s/he be paid? How much, for example, do child care workers, cooks, and janitors earn? (Stone 2000).

The unpaid work module also includes a table (UPW CNS B-1 2006) that explores the occupational equivalents of common unpaid work tasks. These are subdivided into the following categories:

i. Meal preparation and cleanup occupations
ii. Clothing care occupations
iii. Cleaning occupations
iv. Plant and garden care occupations
v. Home maintenance and management occupations
vi. Caregiving occupations

A second approach is a generalist one that quantifies unpaid work based on the time spent. It looks at the wage a person could earn in their regular job, and how much their time is worth. For example, if a person’s normal hourly wage at their paid employment is $20 per hour, and they spend four hours performing unpaid child care per day, then their unpaid child care would be seen to be worth $80 per day. This approach is somewhat less useful, and counterintuitive, as it uses paid employment as the standard measurement to value time. The demonstration section of this conceptual guide examines how some tasks are predominately performed by either women or men.

Indicator Subset 2: Volume

Time Spent
i. Hours per day (average)
ii. Hours per week (distribution)

A common method of measuring unpaid work is to compute the time spent performing it, either in the course of a day or a week. The diary method used in GSS Cycles 12 and 19 employs a 24-hour time diary to record every activity performed during this period (in minutes). One major drawback of this method is that it does not allow for concurrent activities, which may affect the accuracy of time recorded. The exception to this rule in the GSS12/19 is child care, as respondents were asked to identify all of the time periods during the reference day when they were caring for children. The difference in how time is measured affects comparability. Furthermore, because the data collected are based on one 24-hour period, caution should be taken in inferring these numbers to a weekly average.

In comparison, the Census uses the direct method in that it asks participants to identify all time spent on activities even if they were performed together. Participants are asked to indicate the time spent on each of the three unpaid work activities that occurred in the past week: housework, child care and caregiving to seniors. To report the time spent on these activities, participants choose from categories representing weekly averages: “none”; “fewer than 5 hours”; “5 to 14 hours”; “15 to 29 hours”; “30 to 59 hours”; “60 hours or more”. The concurrent performance of these activities (e.g., providing childcare while performing housework) is not measured because of how the questions are organized. Furthermore, the exact time spent, either separately or concurrently, on these activities remains unknown. These are two limitations of the Census data.

Participation Rates
i. Number of participants
ii. Participation rate (i.e., number of people performing activity divided by total number of people in the survey sample)

It is essential to examine the participation rates of people in various unpaid work activities for two reasons. First, knowledge of participation rates (number of people out of the population who performed a certain activity, as a percentage of the sample total) assists researchers in identifying groups that are more likely to perform tasks. Since the comparison between men and women is a primary focus of the GWD, participation rates used for the demonstrations are sex specific (i.e., they are calculated separately for sex). Second, when measuring time spent on unpaid tasks, it is important that researchers consider only those who actually performed the tasks. For example, an average figure of time spent on child care should exclude people who are childless and/or who did not perform any child care. Including non-participants yields inaccurately low measurements of time spent, as the average, or median, includes many zeroes.

Indicators of Social Location

Social location is a term that describes how political and economic conditions interact with social relations (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, class, disability, age and sexuality) to shape people’s actions, and the meanings assigned to them (Zavella 1994). Rather than focusing solely on “demographics”, the statistical and library components of the unpaid work module aim to highlight the socially-constructed character of commonplace categories, such as “class” and “race”, as well as categories constructed by the state, such as “visible minority”, and the statistical indicators associated with them. Studying work activities through this lens provides greater insight into how social location organizes the labour market and unpaid work. The first five categories listed below are covered in tables constructed for the unpaid work module, and the last three are available in other parts of the GWD and/or through public use microdata files.

1. Sex
2. Age
3. Immigrant status
4. Place of birth
5. Ethnic origin
6. Marital status
7. Presence of children
8. Visible minority


Participation Rate and Time Spent on Unpaid Activities

Thus far, we have introduced six subcategories of unpaid work (informal caregiving, volunteering, work in paid workplaces, domestic work, subsistence activities, and family work), as well as two subset indicators (value and volume), which are commonly used to measure participation.

Using indicators from the GSS Cycles 12 and 19; this demonstration examines women’s and men’s participation in unpaid work.  It asks: how and to what extent particular unpaid work tasks are gendered? What are the gendered differences in the performance of unpaid tasks and activities? And, how does labour force status relate to patterns of participation among women and men? These questions are explored through various table views and figures derived from tables UPW GSS12 A-1 and UPW GSS19 A-1. The demonstration is divided into three parts. Part I examines the gendered division of specific tasks and activities within the broader category of “home care/maintenance” work. Part II examines men’s and women’s participation in unpaid domestic work. Part III examines men’s and women’s participation in unpaid work with marital status and the presence of children

The demonstration utilizes the two components of the volume of unpaid work indicator: participation rate and time spent. Recall that the participation rate refers to a ratio of the number of people who engage in a specific task or activity, in relation to the total sample. Given that we are looking at gender differences, the participation rates in the tables refer to the ratios among women and among men (i.e., women’s participation rate refers to the number of women who participate in a task relative to all women in the sample). Also as noted above, the time indicator is contingent on whether or not the respondent initially indicates that s/he has participated in unpaid work. The amount of time spent (in minutes) is recorded during the course of a 24-hour period, values which the GWD table converts to average hours per day.

Part I: Gendered Tasks and Activities In and Around the Home

Gendered differences in the occurrence of and time spent on specific tasks and activities that are related to home care/maintenance work activities, is the first subject of this demonstration and is depicted in the view below, using table UPW GSS12 A-1.

Figure 1: Home Maintenance Tasks and Activities by Sex, Canada, 1998
table displaying the participation and average hours per day spent on performing unpaid acitivities by sex

Figure 1 reveals that a higher proportion of men than women participate in these activities (26% vs. 24%). Yet gendered differences in participation are more apparent when this broader category is broken down further. Higher proportions of men compared to women engage in certain tasks – for example, men have higher participation rates in home maintenance/management (20% vs. 16%), interior/ exterior maintenance and home improvements (8% vs. 4%), and vehicle maintenance (4% vs. 1%). In contrast, higher proportions of women engage in unpaid tasks related to plant and garden care (10% vs. 8%), gardening/grounds keeping (9% vs. 8%), houseplant care (1% vs. 0%), and household management (12% vs. 10%).

Comparing average hours per day spent on such tasks, men spend more time on all the tasks or activities falling under home care/maintenance subcategory except for houseplant care. However, it is important to consider this finding in relation to participation rates; for example, although men spend more time on, for example, plant/garden care when they do partake in it, they are less likely to participate in this activity than women.

These gendered differences within a broad subset of unpaid work illustrate the persistence of longstanding divisions of labour that reinforce traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. The activities in which men are more likely to participate reflect ideologies of male breadwinning. They are also activities that yield more value on the market (another theme that may be explored through this module).  In contrast, activities in which women are more likely to participate tend to take place inside the home and relate to caring for others – e.g., direct care of other household members –activities yielding less value on the market (looking at the other types of unpaid tasks/activities from the larger GSS table reveals this pattern).

Part II: Unpaid Domestic Work

Table UPW GSS19 A-1 may be used to examine men’s and women’s rates and patterns of participation in unpaid domestic work, and how labour force status, age, and household composition, interact with them. Table UPW GSS19 A-1 demonstrates the percentage of those that participate in unpaid work activities and examines the average number of hours per day spent on unpaid work activities.

Using table UPW GSS19 A-1, Figure 2 demonstrates the gendered division of unpaid domestic work activities at the broadest level. Approximately 87% of women surveyed in the GSS19 report engaging in domestic work activities compared to 68% of men, findings consistent with those of recent studies (e.g., Marshall 2006). Figure 2 also demonstrates that women spend a greater number of hours on average per day performing this type of work – more than double the average of men (2.5 vs. 1.2 hours).

Figure 2: Participation Rate and Average Hours Spent on Unpaid Domestic Work by Sex, Canada, 2006
table displaying the participatio nrate and average hours per day spent on Unpaid Domestic Work by sex

This finding is noteworthy given that the proportion of women in the labour force increased dramatically over the 20th century. To consider its significance, we can use the “Labour Force Status” dimension, which encompasses three groups: “employed” (i.e., employees and the self-employed, excluding students who are employed), “students”, and the “unemployed” (i.e., those who are not in the paid labour force either voluntarily or involuntarily, and who may or may not be looking for work). We can also select a particular age group – in this instance, focusing on rates of participation among 25 to 44 year-olds is of particular interest since both women and men in this age group, often labeled “prime working age” are most likely to be engaged in paid work and are the years in which young children are most likely to be present in households.

Figure 3: Participation Rate and Average Hours Spent on Unpaid Domestic Work by Labour Force Status and Sex, Canada, 2006
table displaying the participation rate and average hours per day spent on Unpaid Domestic Work by Labour Force Status and Sex, for 25-44 year olds

Figure 3 shows that when labour force status and prime-working age are taken into consideration, both men and women who are not employed report greater participation and time invested in unpaid domestic work than their employed counterparts. Still, a gender gap persists.  Regardless of labour force status, a higher ratio of women in this age group report participating in, and spending more time on, unpaid domestic work than men. Furthermore, comparing the “unemployed” with the “employed”, and examining the corresponding increase in time spent on unpaid domestic work, demonstrates that there is a stronger relationship between unemployment among women, and spending more time on unpaid domestic work than among men. Women who are unemployed report spending 1.5 more hours a day on unpaid domestic work than those that are employed, whereas men who are unemployed report spending 0.6 more hours a day than their employed counterparts.

Similar steps can be taken to examine other categories of unpaid work activities, such as “caregiving and assistance to own household”, producing parallel results. Regardless of labour force status, women have higher participation rates and invest more time in unpaid caregiving and assistance than their male counterparts. Consistent with previous studies (e.g., Zukewich 2002), the social expectation that women are primarily responsible for caregiving within the household still thrives.

Part III: Participation in Unpaid Domestic Work, with Marital Status and Presence of Children

McMullin (2005) and Marshall (2006) find that women remain disproportionately responsible for daily housework in dual-earner families. This module allows for the consideration of other household factors affecting participation in unpaid work in the home. In table UPW GSS19 A-1, marital status (“partnered”, “previously partnered”, and “single”) and the presence of children (“no children” and “presence of one or more child[ren] under the age of 14 in the same household”) are investigated for their influence on unpaid work activities.

Figure 4: Participation Rate and Average Hours Spent on Unpaid Domestic Work by Marital Status and Sex, Canada, 2006
table displaying the Participation Rate and Average Hours Spent on Unpaid Domestic Work by Marital Status and Sex

Figure 4 demonstrates that within the 25-44 age range and regardless of marital status or presence of children, women have higher participation rates and spend more time on unpaid domestic work than men. In the presence of children, partnered women also have higher participation rates and spend more time on domestic work compared to partnered men. When comparing participation rates in unpaid domestic work among people falling under the different marital status categories, the greatest gender gap exists within those partnered, as opposed to those that are previously partnered or single. This difference is evident regardless of the presence of young children, but intensifies where children are present (from 17% to 26%). These data also show that partnered men’s participation rates in unpaid domestic work are lower when children are present in households (68%) compared to when they are not (70%).

Amongst men and women, those that are single with no children have the lowest participation rates, whereas those that are single with children have the highest rates. The largest difference in participation rate between those with and without children in the household exists in the “single” category. Single men and women with children in the same household have participation rates that are 19% and 15% higher than their counterparts with no young children in the home respectively. Furthermore, single women who have children in the household, who represent the majority of single parents, spend the most time (2.8 hours) on unpaid domestic work, compared to all of the other groups.

This demonstration offered a few examples of how to utilize tables on unpaid work included in the statistics section of the unpaid work module, in relation to scholarly literature on this subject contained in GWD library.

Using tables UPW GSS12 A-1 and UPW GSS19 A-1, and several relevant indicators of volume (participation and time spent) and social location (i.e., gender, age, marital status, presence of young children), we examined gender differences in the participation of unpaid work. Unpaid tasks remain deeply gendered. Men’s unpaid work activities often involve house and vehicle maintenance tasks, whereas women still predominately engage in, and spend more time on, unpaid work inside the home, especially in tasks related to care despite their high rates of labour force participation.

Further research could explore how devoting more time to unpaid work may take away from the time available for other activities, particularly social engagement. How does unpaid work affect physical and emotional well-being, political/civic/community involvement, formal education, and so forth? It could also more fully examine men’s and women’s total work – that is, time spent in paid and unpaid overall to situate trends in Canada internationally (Razavai and Staab 2008; United Nations Research Institute for Social Development [UNRISD] 2010).


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