Valuing Household Production Promises Broad Impact on Society at Large

By Yeong Pey Jung

March 2024 FEATURE
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SIGNIFICANT STRIDES HAVE been made over time in advancing gender equality—with women assuming more prominent roles as decision-makers both in the workforce and in the realm of politics. However, on the home front, traditional values remain dormant and dominant. Women still bear the burden of housework and care work, following established gender roles. The homemaker role is indeed often assumed by a woman; she remains responsible for the smooth running of the household, performing repetitive tasks, stretching from cooking, cleaning and caregiving to maintaining household accounts.

While one can argue that there has been some progress made, and men are increasingly taking on a more active role at home, women do remain predominantly responsible for household tasks. Figure 1 shows that the percentage of women exiting the labour force due to housework and family responsibilities is significantly and disproportionately higher than that of men, in fact, it reached a five-year high of 98.4% in 2022.

Furthermore, the proportion of women who are not part of the labour force because of domestic work never fell below 90% over the course of the last five years. It clearly indicates that there is still a lot of advocacy work to do to narrow the gender gap in household responsibilities.

The gendered division of household responsibilities not only perpetuates inequalities, it also impacts women’s economic participation. Working women now bear the weight of work and family responsibilities, the doubled responsibility impacting their overall well-being. Furthermore, household contribution is often overlooked and undervalued, and homemakers are usually not accorded the recognition they deserve.

Housework Valuation

Household management and household production (the production of goods and services by members of a household for their own consumption [1]) are crucial components of economic growth, as they contribute to the economy by supporting the well-being of families. Therefore, housework greatly influences the efficiency of work and human capital development. Euston Quah, the Albert Winsemius Chair Professor of Economics from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, and a Penang boy, has long advocated for the measurement of household production. In conversation with Penang Institute, he explained the importance of valuing unpaid domestic labour, highlighting its significance in recognising and appreciating the economic contribution of homemakers, who are mostly women, within households and society at large.

This valuation also provides a more holistic measure of the true economic value women and homemakers bring to the economy and society, challenging the notion that their work is less valuable than paid work. The understanding of labour and economic contribution should not be confined to the financial contribution of market activities, as non-market activities of unpaid domestic work are forms of essential labour that keep the family intact and functional.

Nevertheless, Quah acknowledges the intricate challenges in the valuation of household production. Among them are the scarcity and insufficiency of data, ambiguity of definitions, and the fact that there are many complexities involved in the formulation of an accurate valuation method. However, he stresses that this does not mean that the measurement of household production cannot be achieved.

Economists have derived several methods for such valuation; the output valuation method and the replacement cost method (a process that involves comparing the current value of work with its fair market value), and the utilisation of time-use surveys (how much time one takes to complete a specific task). While these methods are often debated and yet to be perfected, their application is important when it comes to revealing a clearer picture of the time and effort spent on domestic work and care work. By assigning economic value to housework and care work, they address and highlight gender disparities in household labour division. This can help break gender stereotypes and change cultural expectations.

Nur Hasanah Ahmad Akhir, programme manager of Family and Children Development at Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), explains that housework valuation will help homemakers negotiate the household workload with their partners. It may lead to better shared responsibility within the family. “Furthermore, this will indirectly help women claim fair compensation if the marriage were to end,” she continues.

Pinpointing value to various household work can also provide important insights into household economic activities for policymakers. A deeper understanding of the multidimensional contributions of homemakers and household production will lead to a better allocation of resources in policies aimed at income and welfare distribution, and to improvements in family well-being. For instance, more holistic policies in support of caregivers become possible. Additionally, social protection policies can also be tailored to support homemakers.

In Malaysia, the government has taken active steps to appreciate homemakers by providing social protection, such as the Housewives’ Social Security Scheme (SKSSR). [2] This scheme was designed to promote and ensure the well-being of homemakers and recognise their contributions to their families, and to the country’s economic and social development. This is an encouraging start, but more can be done to shower homemakers with the appreciation they undoubtedly deserve.

Hasanah emphasises that a more comprehensive approach is needed in policy-making, especially to understand the realities for families from different socio-economic backgrounds and diverse family models. To achieve this, all levels of government and community need to come together to foster appreciation and recognition of the value of homemakers.

Changing the perspective on domestic work through valuation will foster equitable partnerships in households and provide more time for leisure for each family member. This awareness will create happier, healthier, and more connected families, the “atomic unit” needed to build an inclusive society and nation.

  • [1]
  • [2] Implemented on 1 December 2022, SKSSR aims to provide social security protection to housewives against domestic injury and invalidity while managing the household.
Yeong Pey Jung

is a senior analyst with the Socioeconomics and Statistics Programme at Penang Institute. She is a reading enthusiast and is surgically attached to her Kindle.