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Gender Economics: Approaches to Measuring Women’s Unpaid Labor through Opportunity Cost (Alexandra Beda)

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            Economics is a patriarchal social science. It aspires to dominate society by imputing value on goods that it finds important or relevant, and therefore manipulates perceptions of social value, and controls social welfare. Because of this, there is an abrasive intersection arising between economics, ecology, and ecofeminism. Marilyn Waring, author of Counting for Nothing, believes that there is a need for value to be imputed on unpaid women’s labor, but believes a fiscal approach would be inefficient and “totally dysfunctional”. The core of her argument is that economics has been designed to economically repress women, and that excluding women’s unpaid domestic labor from calculating national income is harmful in addressing the progress of our economy. Because the patriarchal nature of economics does not allow for a true imputation of value on opportunity cost women’s domestic labor, it cannot be considered a true measure of national income, and if remained unaddressed, will be detrimental to modern day society.

            The opportunity cost of women’s labor is necessary in order to acquire a true measure of total national income, but tends to be either approached inefficiently, or neglected altogether. To be clear, the opportunity cost is the best alternative that we forgo when we make a choice or decision; this concept is particularly relevant in the discussion of women’s domestic labor, because it takes constrained choice and scarcity into account. These ideas are not only isolated to the definition of opportunity cost, but are fundamental to the discipline of economics as a field, and therefore should be taken into account when calculating women’s unpaid production. When a woman makes the choice to cook a family dinner, for example, she us giving up the best possible alternative that she could have done in place of preparing dinner. Because time is a scarce “good”, she is constrained to make a choice between preparing dinner, and doing something else in that time span. Other alternatives to preparing dinner could have been anything from going to the grocery store to cleaning out an old office; those alternatives could have also been leisure time or paid labor, which are especially important to calculating women’s unpaid labor, and tend to be the most challenging tradeoffs to address.

            In the past, economists such as Hans Adler and Oli Hawrylyshyn have attempted to measure the value of women’s unpaid labor in terms of opportunity cost, but in means that either do not fully encompass the tradeoffs of leisure time and paid labor, or are not feasible in modern economic society. On this issue, Waring comments on opportunity cost approach as being “the economist’s ideal. It is based on the assumption that women make an economically rational decision about whether to do an additional hour of housework or go out and seek paid employment.” In other words, many economists believe that the best way to measure women’s unpaid labor is opportunity cost, but do not actually attribute a numerical or monetary value to those opportunity costs. Instead, the argument is that because women are making an economically informed decision to give up time that they could be using for paid labor, imputing value on opportunity cost is unnecessary. In response, Waring goes on to argue that “given the…social pressures for [women] to fulfill this role [as the domestic caretaker], and the lack of support services to enable any option, this assumption is invalid.” (p. 228) Society cannot demand that women become the domestic figure of the household without taking domestic production into account. The absence of imputed value on women’s unpaid domestic production also neglects women who “produce” or work outside of the household. Economist Ronald Schettkat argued that because some working women spend less time doing domestic work in the household than housewives, it means that housewives are not using their time efficiently because they’re doing the same work in double the time. This argument is completely invalid; the only reason that working women spend fewer hours on household labor is because they run out of time, not because they’ve finished the same amount of domestic labor that housewives can accomplish. It’s also important to keep in mind that, in most cases, leisure is more “expensive” for working women, which may be another reason why they spend less time on household labor. Both reasons render this approach to measuring opportunity cost invalid.

            The question that remains to be addressed is therefore in what way we should measure women’s opportunity costs and positive externalities in the economy. If our society continues to ignore the value of women’s unpaid production from our gross domestic product and national income, it will never be able to accurately evaluate the state of the economy—and in which ways we can improve it. Waring is cannot be responsible for proposing a solution to this problem, but opens our eyes to the current fallacies and obstacles in modern day economics.




Waring, Marilyn. If women counted: a new feminist economics. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.