The Problem with Unpaid Work

34 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2007 Last revised: 22 Apr 2017

See all articles by Katharine K. Baker

Katharine K. Baker

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology

Date Written: 2007


This article examines the problems with a social norm that assumes women should shoulder a disproportionate amount of unpaid family work. It evaluates the most recent empirical data which suggests that women continue to do substantially more unpaid work than men, and men continue to do substantially more paid work than women. It then briefly reviews two standard explanations for where this gendered division of work may come from, biological inclination and/or systems of male dominance. It suggests that neither of these traditional explanations have given adequate consideration to the normative question begged by the extant division of labor. Is there something wrong with the fact that women seem to choose to do more unpaid work than men do? This article answers that question both for women who forego paid work entirely and for (the much larger class of) women who combine paid and unpaid work but still perform the lion's share of their household's home work. The article suggests that the problem with the unpaid work norm is not so much that women do not get paid for as much of their work as men do, because many women do end up getting paid - by their husbands - for the work they do in the home. Instead, the problem with the unpaid work norm is the messages that it sends with regard to the need for and ability to combine paid and unpaid work. The analysis presented suggests that women opting out of paid work entirely is problematic because it puts insufficient pressure on the workplace to afford flexibility for the many workers who need it. More important, the article suggests that the extant division of unpaid labor, even in households in which both spouses perform paid work, is putting many of the equality gains that women have made in jeopardy. If so many women continue to subordinate their own paid work so that their spouses do not have to, the workplace is likely to take notice and start assuming precisely that. Employers may well start resisting equality legislation that prevents firms from making accurate predications about women's likelihood of working less hard (at paid work) than do men.

Keywords: family, workplace, biological, women, labor

Suggested Citation

Baker, Katharine K., The Problem with Unpaid Work (2007). 4 University of St. Thomas Law Journal 599 (2007), Available at SSRN:

Katharine K. Baker (Contact Author)

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology ( email )

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Chicago, IL 60661-3691
United States
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