Have you ever tried to put a number on the amount of work you do around the house? Seriously, think about it and try to tot up the hours in your head; the childcare, the chores. All that unpaid labour, which, more often than not, goes unrecognised.
Well, earlier this month, a court in China did recognise it. In a landmark divorce settlement, a judge ordered a man to pay his soon-to-be-ex wife the equivalent of £5,460 to cover her five years of domestic labour, looking after him and their son.
During the pandemic, the “second shift” has arguably become essential work. According to the Office for National Statistics, before Covid women did around 60 per cent more domestic labour than men. But since the start of the pandemic, the ONS has found that men currently do an average of two hours and 25 minutes to the average woman’s three hours and 32 minutes.
Or as UN Women’s deputy executive director Anita Bhatia put it: “If [the amount of unpaid labour done by women] was more than three times as much as men before the pandemic, I assure you that number has at least doubled since the pandemic.”
The Chinese ruling has been a much needed prompt for some women to reflect on how much unpaid work they are really doing – and how much it would be worth, if they were salaried.
It’s a bit of fun, sure, but it’s also seen as taboo by the women I speak to. None of them wanted to be pictured for this article, as they were concerned about how their partner would feel about being confronted with the truth about how much their efforts on the home front are really worth.
So I’ll go first. I spend 12 hours a week cooking, and four hours a week cleaning. I live in a small-ish flat and am currently childfree, so my hours are pretty minimal – and I enjoy making food. But enjoyable or otherwise, it’s still domestic labour. Taking £12 an hour as a standard for housekeeping (it’s what leading domestic help company Housekeep currently charge), I would be earning £192 a week, which works out at £9,984 a year. If we want to keep things fair, let’s balance my domestic work against my husband’s. He does around two hours a week of domestic labour, which means £104 a week or £1,248.
But that’s absolutely nothing compared to what happens when you have children. Caro is 36 and has two kids. She is on maternity leave and currently does 13 hours of house-related work per week day and 11 at the weekend, totalling 87 hours per week. Again assuming £12 an hour, as is standard for childcare or cleaning, she would be billing £1,044 a week or £54,288 a year.
Her husband, who has a full time job, does an average of 17 hours of domestic work per week in addition to his 40 hour per week job. If you include two eight hour days of parenting at the weekend, his weekly total would be £204 a week or £10,608.
The problem isn’t solved when maternity leave ends. Caitlin is 41 and has two children, aged 11 and 13. They take themselves to school and back, so she and her husband don’t require any paid childcare. Caitlin does three hours a day of cooking, cleaning and logistics Monday to Friday and eight hours on each weekend day, making 31 hours of unpaid work per week. This makes £372 per week or £19,344.
She points out that at some times in the year, including normal Christmas periods and summer holidays, that total can rise closer to 50 hours per week or £600. Caitlin’s husband does two hours a week, driving each child to an activity on one weekend day and will wash up for half an hour on a Sunday after lunch. This brings his total to 2.5 hours a week or £30 per week, £1,560 per year.
When I tell Caitlin this, she tells me: “We always say that Dad works the hardest because he leaves earliest in the morning and gets back last at night. But when I add up the hours, I’m doing considerably more than him, even when you include the idea that he works another 90 minutes a day longer than I do in the office. I don’t ask him to do things in the house because he works so hard, but I’m realising that technically I work just as hard, if not harder.”
Liza, 44, who works part time, does 24 hours a week as a teaching assistant and around 20 hours looking after her home and two teenage children. So while she does work “part-time” on paper, she is actually putting in more hours than her husband, who works 37.5 hours a week for the local council and, she says, does just 30 minutes of washing and tidying per day.
Stay-at-home mothers are also often disproportionately affected by underestimating the value of their labour. “I often say that I don’t work,” one friend tells me, after I prompt her to calculate the salary she isn’t currently earning. “But if I was paid for the housework and childcare I’m currently doing I’d be making an average of £756 a week. Which is actually more than I was making when I had a job. It’s made me feel a bit less guilty about not putting anything into the family money pot when I realise how much we’d be paying someone to do everything I currently do.”
She’s not wrong. According to Greycoat Lumleys, a private staff recruitment company, the going rate for a housekeeper working 45 hours a week is between £30,000 and £40,000. That’s working five days a week. Stay at home parents generally do seven.
Of course there are families where the division is completely fair. Sophie, 33, has a one-year-old son. “I work the same hours that my husband does, him for a tech company, me looking after our son. As soon as the clock hits 5.30pm, we split all of the labour equally. We both work the exact same number of hours per week. We even keep a record of things like doing the supermarket shop online while watching TV or giving the bath a quick wipe after a shower. It might sound petty, but it means that we never sleepwalked into a situation where one of us carried an unfairly heavy burden.”
It is of course a personal choice how each family divides their labour and finances. I’m not suggesting that men who don’t pay their wives a salary every time they make a bowl of pasta are bad men. Not least because I don’t imagine most couples could afford to pay for domestic labour.
But even if you’re not going to bill anyone for your hours, it might be worth working out how much you would be making if you did. All too often women go through their lives thinking that they “don’t work” or “only work part time” when, in reality, they work as many hours – if not more – than their partners.
Being aware of the financial value of the work that you do is an essential tool for learning to value your own contribution in the home and making sure that everyone else who lives there values it too.