A Day in the U.S. Economy Without Women

Employees iron stars onto a U.S. flag at Annin Flagmakers in South Boston, Virginia, on July 6, 2016.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, women worldwide are planning to strike in the name of equal rights. Dubbed “A Day Without A Woman,” the strike encourages women to take a day off from both paid and unpaid labor. Women comprise almost half of the U.S. workforce and thus could make a large economic impact by taking off work.

How exactly would a day without women affect the economy? According to the Center for American Progress’ calculations based on the labor share of the gross domestic product, or GDP, and women’s relative pay and hours of work, women’s labor contributes $7.6 trillion to the nation’s GDP each year. In one year, women working for pay in the United States earn more than Japan’s entire GDP of $5.2 trillion. If all paid working women in the United States took a day off, it would cost the country almost $21 billion in terms of GDP. Moreover, women contribute many millions of dollars to their state’s GDP each day, making their work crucial to the health of their local economies as well. (see Methodology for more detail)

However, this number does not fully represent the hit the economy would take if all women took a day off. Women’s paid labor contributions are undervalued because women are overrepresented in sectors of the economy that are low-profit. Many of these sectors are inherently less likely to have significant productivity gains since they are face-to-face service occupations, but they still matter a great deal to the overall functioning of the economy. Women make up 94 percent of employees at child day care services, 88 percent of home health service workers, 97 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers, 90 percent of registered nurses, 94 percent of secretaries and administrative assistants, and 89 percent of maids and housekeeping cleaners. These supportive and caregiving services contribute to the productivity of the individuals and families who are the recipients of this work. For example, children who receive a high-quality education earn higher lifetime earnings, and high-paid managers’ productivity often relies on skilled assistance. If the earnings of female-dominated service and caregiving sectors accurately reflected the long-term value created by these jobs, women’s labor share contribution to the GDP would be even higher.

Even if women’s paid work was valued more accurately, this still would not include the other ways in which women contribute to the economy. This is because economic measures such as GDP do not include unpaid labor, which is mostly taken on by women. Women in the United States spend 150 percent more time on housework than men and more than twice the time men spend on caregiving. This unpaid labor includes child care, caretaking, and cooking along with a variety of other tasks that are vital to the economy.

Although many women who care for their families do not receive a paycheck for doing this work, their labor is valuable and should be included in GDP. Economist Nancy Folbre notes the irony that “the measure we call gross domestic product excludes the value of most domestic work.” If a woman did not do that unpaid work, the family would have to hire someone and pay them a wage, contributing to GDP. Since unpaid work is not included in GDP measures, it could be said that the nation is consistently and significantly underestimating GDP. Using a conservative assumption, a 2015 report by McKinsey Global Institute estimates that women’s unpaid work amounts to about $10 trillion per year, or about 13 percent of global GDP. Additionally, a paper from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that incorporating unpaid domestic work into U.S. GDP would have raised it 26 percent in 2010.

Women have always been a valuable and integral part of the economy, and women’s paid work is becoming increasingly important to family well-being. In 2015, 42 percent of mothers in the United States were breadwinners, and an additional 22.4 percent were co-breadwinners, making between 25 percent and 49 percent of household earnings. The women’s strike offers an opportunity to reflect on how important women’s labor is to the country and remind Americans of what remains to be done to accurately value the work that women do to sustain the nation’s families and economy.

Methodology

Using data on average hours worked per week and employment from the 2014 Current Population Survey, the authors calculate the proportion of hours women work out of total hours worked by all workers. They found that women provide 43.8 percent of all labor hours in the U.S. economy. If all their labor were withdrawn, it would lead to a roughly proportional reduction in GDP.

Data used for national calculations: 2014 Current Population Survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Table 22: Persons at work in nonagricultural industries by age, sex, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, marital status, and usual full- or part-time status”) and 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (“Table 1.1.5: Gross Domestic Product“)

Data used for state calculations: 2014 Current Population Survey data at state level from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“Table 21: States: Employed people, by class of worker, gender, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, 2014 annual averages” and “Table 22: States: people at work, by gender, age, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, and hours of work, 2014 annual averages”) and 2014 regional data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (“Gross domestic product (GDP) by state”)

Kate Bahn is an Economist and Annie McGrew is a Special Assistant for the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress.