By Hugo Ñopo

There’s a consensus in the academic world that it’s vital to invest in the development of children as early as possible in their lives. To make this investment in the most cost-effective manner, it’s necessary to combine public policy efforts with those made in the home. Thus, the home assumes, once again, a valuable role in the development of our societies.

To recognize and highlight the role of the home, it’s worth delving into the division of labor between men and women. This is especially important in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean, where gender disparity is quite pronounced. Household surveys about time use in Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico reveal that households require, on average, between 15 and 20 hours of work per week to function properly. If households include small children or people with disabilities, the number of hours may increase by up to 50%. And here’s where we find an important fact worth emphasizing: 80% of unpaid housework is performed by women. 

With most of the burden of unpaid domestic work falling on women, there are fewer opportunities for development in the labor markets for them. This happens not only because women have fewer hours to devote to their jobs than men but also because the concentration or dedication that they can give their jobs is often diminished by their additional responsibilities. With these constraints, women can expect lower productivity and, therefore, lower wages and fewer opportunities for advancement and promotion throughout their careers.

In the recently published study “New Century, Old Disparities: Gender and Ethnic Earnings Gaps in Latin America and the Caribbean”, we note that female labor participation is stagnant, and these additional responsibilities within the home are the reason why.  Women seek jobs that offer them the greatest flexibility, i.e. part-time work, work at small businesses, self-employment, and informal employment. So, while 25% of working women are engaged in part-time employment (30 hours or less per week), only 10% of men are in this situation.

This flexibility in female employment spells lower wages. The wage gap between men and women is more pronounced precisely in these flexible segments of labor markets. In turn, a tradition of part-time employment still doesn’t exist in our countries as it does in developed countries. The supply of part-time work remains limited, and so, for the most part, Latin American women wind up generating their own employment. This may explain why self-employment in our region is so high and productivity so low as compared to other places.

But let’s get back to the original point. Along with increasing awareness about the importance of providing children with an environment conducive to their full development, it’s crucial to link this discussion to gender equity. With household tasks and responsibilities more equally shared, we achieve households that are not only more fairly balanced (which brings along a number of benefits in terms of harmony) but it also allows for a boost in household earning power.

I’ll wrap things up with a controversial question. Who should bear the cost of our procreative function? Despite the possible arguments that can be put forward about the division of labor in the home, disproportionately burdening women probably isn’t a very smart choice. What do you think?

Hugo Ñopo is a Lead Education Economist at the Inter-American Development Bank. He has worked extensively on labor markets.

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