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Do Women Produce More GDP Than Men?

The New York Times reported this week that women’s work in the home is worth $10.9 trillion to the world economy, calling attention to the value of the women’s unpaid work, something that is not recognized in part because it does not get converted into money and thus goes uncounted by economists.

Yet there is another step to be taken here, which is to include the $10.9 trillion in our estimate of global GDP and recalculate the percentage that women contribute, in total, to world income.

According to McKinsey, women’s paid labor counted for about 37 percent of GDP in 2014. If we compute women’s adjusted contribution, then recalculate the percentage contributed by each sex, we find that females produce about 60 percent of the world’s goods and services.

Let’s recognize that men do some housework and child care in every country and that they do an increasingly significant share in some countries. If we adjusted for that, we would likely change the split somewhat. The percentage would most likely still be higher for women.

There are other ways to carve up GDP, however. For instance, entrepreneurs contribute about $34 trillion in GDP worldwide. Women own about a third of the small-to-medium sized businesses in the world and they do not contribute as large a share of income as men’s businesses do—largely because of the care burden, as well as their limited access to capital. The Harvard Business Review estimates that if women were entrepreneurs as often as men, it would add as much as $5 trillion to world GDP. Even so, male entrepreneurs’ contribution to GDP would dwarf that of women.

On the other hand, household consumption contributes about 65 percent of GDP around the world—and women control most of that. But many people don’t even think of consumption when they imagine what constitutes the economy.

Women do other work in the home besides shopping and housework, however. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that women produce nearly half the world’s food. Much of that farmwork—no one knows exactly how much—is done unpaid (and uncounted) as part of a woman’s “duties” around the house. But the value of the crops at market will be collected by the male head of household. Indeed, as the graph of coffee production shows here, women often do all the work to produce the crop that the household sells, but the men collect the money and are seen to own the output. More often than not, the women never see any of the money for which they have worked so hard.

There is yet another way that women contribute to the world economy, the production of human capital. Yes, I mean literally giving birth, but also cultivating children as they become adults, an activity I would argue is considerably more elaborate than basic child care. The most valuable resource a modern economy can have is high quality human capital—people who are educated, but also adequately nourished and healthy. Certainly men contribute to this outcome, but even biologists recognize that the investment a female makes in offspring is considerably more than the male’s.

So there are abundant ways to discern what women and men produce for the world economy, some of which show women being the dominant factor and others men. We could say, then, that it’s a tossup which sex offers more. However, there is another lesson to take away from this exercise.

Notice not only how often women’s contribution is unrecognized or unknown because it’s unpaid, but also how the dominance of one sex or the other in a domain of the economy changes in accordance with traditional sex roles. Also see how our typical notions of how important a particular factor is a function of the gender of the group responsible. For years, economists treated consumption as merely the waste product of the system. Most of us think first of paid labor when we think of GDP. These judgements are based on the expectation that women do the shopping and men do the paid work.

During the past 200 years, economists have gone back and forth over whether to include women’s work in their calculations and, if so, how. The narrative, as told by Nancy Folbre in her masterful Greed, Lust, and Gender, reflects how individual economists valued women and their work, rather than just whether it was paid. But as economic thought shifted to purely monetized calculations—which only happed in the 1960s—women simply dropped out of the very definition of what the economy is. By that time, economists thought of women as an “unproductive” class.

As we recognize International Women’s Day/Week/Month, we should bear in mind that women are not just unequal in the economy, but to a large degree excluded, even from our calculations of “what counts” as economics. This happens because of the way our societies and our economists refuse to recognize the value of women’s contribution, whether in life or in theory.


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