Working for nothing: How unpaid labour shapes women’s professional lives

Gender inequality isn’t a new thing but the COVID pandemic highlighted just how much women tend to be burdened with unpaid tasks outside of work.
Gender inequality isn’t a new thing but the COVID pandemic highlighted just how much women tend to be burdened with unpaid tasks outside of work. Copyright Canva
By Oceane Duboust
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The disproportionate share of unpaid work that women do is having an impact on their careers. How do different European countries compare in the imbalance of unpaid work?


Gender inequality isn’t a new thing but the COVID pandemic highlighted just how much women tend to be burdened with unpaid tasks outside of their jobs.

And this is having a significant impact on their career.

Women’s double burden impacts their professional opportunities

One of the reasons women may struggle to commit to and develop their careers is the load of unpaid tasks that they take care of daily.

This can relate to childcare, care of the elderly or domestic tasks. The imbalance between genders became especially apparent during the pandemic.

You can check how well - or how badly - your country is doing when it comes to the imbalance below:

The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) said that unequal share of paid and unpaid work was “one of the root causes of gender inequality in society as a whole and in the labour market specifically” in its Gender Equality Index 2023.

For example, women in the UK spend four hours per day in unpaid work whereas for men, it’s a little over two hours, according to the OECD.

This means that women are effectively working two full-time jobs: One paid and one unpaid.

More subtly, all of the unpaid labour performed by women is affecting their career progression.

For example, in a hybrid work environment, men are more likely to come into the office and are perceived as more productive due to proximity bias, whereas women - as the more typical caregiver - stay away from the office to provide care at home while remaining part of the workforce, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Women’s career paths are therefore not so much slowed by a glass ceiling as hampered by a “broken rung”, meaning they face difficulties when it comes to stepping up to managerial roles.

For every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, only 87 women were promoted, according to 2023 data gathered by the consulting firm McKinsey. The number is even lower (73) when it comes to women of colour.

The vicious cycle of the pay gap

Unpaid care work is also directly linked to the gender pay gap within households.

Because women’s salaries tend to be lower, they are usually the ones who stop working to take over childcare as opposed to their male partners, according to Marie Sautier, a French sociologist interviewed by Le Monde.

And as women therefore spend less time in work on average than men, they find it harder to develop their careers and continue to earn less, exacerbating the already prevalent issue of the gender pay gap: The average gender pay discrepancy between employees in the UK in 2023, for example, was around 14%, according to the country’s Office of National Statistics.

Additionally, women who are responsible for a large amount of unpaid care work may find it difficult to work full-time hours, which can limit their job opportunities.

What are the solutions?

The negative impact of unpaid work on women’s professional lives isn’t inevitable, and there are ways to address it, according to experts.

For example, public awareness campaigns, education programmes, and financial incentives for fathers to take parental leave could promote a fairer distribution of the unpaid workload.


Sweden is the European country topping the rankings when it comes to gender equality, scoring 82 out of 100 with the EIGE. It also gives parents 480 days of paid parental leave, to be shared between them.

By comparison, France offers 25 days of paternity leave.

Overall, creating a supportive culture for working parents and carers could help women face the challenges linked to unpaid labour and combat the stifling of their careers.

In 2019, the European Parliament passed the Work-life Balance Directive “encouraging a more equal sharing of parental leave between men and women, and addressing women’s underrepresentation in the labour market”.

The deadline for all EU Member States to finally transpose the directive into national legislation was August 2022.


But there's still a long way to go and the European Commission is taking action:  in April this year, it decided to continue infringement procedures against a host of EU members, including Belgium, Ireland, Spain and France for failing to fully transpose the directive.

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