In Context: Mama's Work

Online, in cafeterias, in factories and marketplaces—at any moment, mothers across the world are telling each other stories. Often their stories are riddled with questions about everyday coping strategies: “How do I simultaneously raise children, work long hours, and run a household?” or “What time is left for me?” Many mothers feel like they are on duty day and night. [1]

The sense that mothers work incredibly hard is confirmed by global data. Women “spend an inordinate amount of time on the double burden of paid work and family responsibilities”, according to the United Nations.[2]

It’s a worldwide pattern, with women’s total work hours longer than men’s across Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.[3] In the developed world the same pattern holds true. In Europe, North America, and other wealthy nations, women spend two-and-a-half hours more than men on unpaid work each day.[4] Additionally, the gender pay gap continues to be a problem, with women earning less than men for the same work in both developed and undeveloped countries.

Access to high-quality, affordable childcare is a top priority for working parents. It’s most available in Scandinavian countries, where gender equality also ranks high. For mothers living in countries without supportive policies, quality affordable care is often out of reach, particularly for low-income single moms.

Take, for instance, the United States, where the number of households headed by single mothers has risen dramatically over the past four decades.[5] Many of these moms stay home full time, not out of preference, but because childcare costs would eat up most, if not all, of their earnings in the absence of subsidized care.[6]

Will mothers “go on strike” and stop having babies?[7] It’s actually happening in Japan, Korea, Italy, Spain, Greece and other societies where tensions over the changing roles of women and the economics of families have yet to be reconciled.[8] Mothers are also penalized when they compete for work with childless women.  In one US study[12] researchers submitted fake resumes for two equally qualified candidates–one childless, one a mom.  They found the mother was 100% less likely to be hired when she applied for a position, and consistently ranked as less competent and less committed than non-moms.

What hasn’t changed is that women’s contribution to global productivity continues to be grossly undervalued worldwide.  Women’s unpaid work at home and outside the home contributes a staggering one third of the world ‘s GDP by one estimate.[9]

Even as the mamas of the world struggle, global leaders are belatedly recognizing that investing in them is a win-win proposition.

Michelle Bachelet, ex-President of Chile, is now championing their cause[10] as the head of UN Women. Bachelet, a single mother of three, has added the double burden to her equality agenda.[11]

With these disturbing realities in mind, the old adage “A mother’s work is never done” bears more truth than it should.

In the Mama’s Work gallery:

  • WATCH Alexia Nye Jackson's documentary about valuing mothers' work, "All Day"
  • HEAR FROM Irene Natividad about what employers should provide for working parents in order for families and businesses to thrive
  • MEET Hero Um Ala, a Jordanian businesswoman who now employes her husband and sons in her successful grocery business
  • LISTEN to Mamas' Voices, where women around the world share how they balance work and motherhood
  • AND MORE > 

[1] Sleep Medication: Mother’s New Little Helper, New York Times, Accessed 10 November 2011

[2] The World's Women 2010: Trends and Statistics, United Nations Statistics Division, Accessed 10 November 2011

[3] The State of the World’s Children, 2007, Women and Children, The Double Dividend of Gender Equality, UNICEF,  Accessed 10 November 2011

[4] Women Lead in Unpaid Work, Economix Blog, New York Times, Accessed 10 November 2011

[5] U.S. Children in Single-Mother Families, Population Reference Bureau, Accessed 10 November 2011

[7] Mommy’s on strike?  Working Moms Break, Blog by Katrina Alcorn, Accessed 10 November 2011

[8] No Babies?  Russell Shorto, New York Times, Accessed 10 November 2011

[9] Invest in Women – It Pays!  Women Deliver, Accessed 10 November 2011

[11] Beyond the Gender Gap: Latin American and Caribbean Women in Search of a New BalanceWorld Bank Press Release on Study Launch with the Participation of UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, 25 October 2011, Accessed on 22 November 2011