The Invisible 10.9 Trillion Dollar Industry

At the forefront of the collective of social norms that inform how a woman is to move through society is a deeply embedded expectation of care-taking for which the family home is a microcosm. There, the deep feminization of domestic work has informed the role of women and girls for centuries now. At the very bottom of our economy, women and girls around the world, especially those living in poverty and from marginalized groups are performing 12.5 billion hours of domestic work every single day. But, to know the weight of our current global economic system is in the same stride to itch to understand how their unpaid labor carries our economy forward.

Social norms remain underestimated for their power to dictate functioning and silence questioning. The norm that the responsibility of domestic work rests on women’s shoulders is no exception and behind the curtains where it operates exist deep economic implications. Oxfam data shows that women today undertake more than three-quarters of all domestic work through cooking, cleaning, washing, mending, childcare, and fetching water and firewood. Girls around the world often find themselves tangled in this system by actively participating in labor-intensive household work. As of 2016, girls between the ages of 5 and 14 spent an alarming 550 million hours on household chores. This amount is exacerbated for women in rural communities and low-income countries who spend up to 14 hours a day on care work, which is 5 times more than their male counterparts. What started as a harmful social norm has now morphed into an entire industry operating in the shadows, left there invisible to the outside world.

The monetary value that rests in that dark place was worth 10.9 trillion dollars in 2020.

That is 3 times the size of the world’s tech industry.

And more than all the money made in 2018 by the 50 biggest companies in the world.

To recognize the magnitude of this number is only to start to understand the extent to which the heavy and unequal unpaid labor taken up by women effectively subsidizes our global economy. Because our current 8-hour workday structure was not designed to be fulfilled without the support of a spouse for essential domestic work, the labor women and girls perform in the home essentially works to support men’s careers outside of it. And it ripples out into communities by enabling their functioning and sustaining the wellbeing of societies at large. Yet, in no way is this a humble system for its model prevents the full societal participation of its catalysts. Globally, Oxfam estimates that 42% of women of working age are outside the paid labor force because of unpaid domestic work. And all these women started as little girls faced with systemic barriers to learning and growth.

We are standing on the mass exploitation of women and girls with no clear intention to look down at the bruised backs of those who make us so tall. But to look down would be to be willing to let go of our grip on a flawed economic model and its skewed gendered distribution of domestic work. Still, we can be assured that the view with which we will be met by looking down won’t allow us to look back.


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