Does Housework Make Women Less Productive?

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These days, it’s hard to get through a week that doesn’t include headlines about a guy getting slammed for saying, doing, or tweeting something dumb about women. The slip-up du jour comes from a New Zealand businessman who claimed women get paid less because they take time off for babies and period pain. Oh yes he did.

Alasdair Thompson, chief executive of New Zealand’s Employers & Manufacturers’ Association, was on a radio show talking about the 12% pay gap between men and women, which he said was due to the fact that women take more sick leave:

“Why? Because once a month they have sick problems,” he said.

“Not all of them, but some do.

“They have children that they have to take time off to go home and take leave of. Therefore, it’s their productivity. It’s not their fault.”

Not to get on the female soap box, but I think there are a few data points missing from this equation.

First, it’s true that women work less than men (41 minutes fewer per day in the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use survey for 2010). However, women also report spending five fewer hours per week on leisure than men. Why? Because they do more housework than men: 49% of women from the Time Use survey report doing housework on the average day, versus only 20% for men.

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While women may get pulled away from bean-counting in the office more than their male counterparts, they’re less likely to be headed home to watch the boob tube. Rather, they’re tending to chores and family. And that’s not something standard measures of productivity — measured as economic output per hour worked — take into account. The hours women spend outside the office may not contribute to their companies’ bottom line, but research suggests those hours indirectly contribute to economic output in society, because women who tend to the home rear more productive children bound for the workforce. A quote from Tipper and Al Gore in a paper by political economist Nancy Folbre makes this point nicely:

“At any given moment when the decision between work and family must be made, the workplace has a much stronger ability to quantify and express the immediate cost of neglecting work.”

Women also tend to take more sick days than men because they have to care for sick children. Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 4 in 5 mothers are primarily responsible for selecting their children’s doctors and accompanying them to appointments.

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The question is whether their high productivity at home deserves higher compensation in the office. Should companies have to pay women who tend to their home as much as the men who stay at work? A paper by Stanford economist Kathryn Shaw offers some suggestions:

One possibility is to reduce the monetary rewards for market work or to increase the monetary rewards for work at home. For example, policies such as income subsidies and maternity leave lower the cost of taking time out of the labor force and increase the amount of time that parents have to spend with their children. However, these policies are clearly expensive for taxpayers and firms, so that the benefits must be weighed
against the costs. Moreover, the costs are also borne by women; for example, firms in European countries are thought to avoid hiring young women due to the high costs of maternity leave.

Ultimately, says Shaw, women may actually be more productive in the office than companies acknowledge. In that sense, the solution to women’s wage woes may have to come from technology, which offers better ways to measure productivity. Instead of measuring by hours worked, for instance, some firms haven taken on more sophisticated systems that pinpoint talent. Those can target the more obscure, and arguably more important, worker contributions like team-building, an area in which women tend to do particularly well.