Paid and unpaid work

The New Zealand labour market is still highly segregated.  Men and women are possibly doing about the same amount of work but most of men's work is paid, whereas women do a lot of unpaid work. Māori and Pacific women, in particular, are not seeing the gains other people are making. For those reasons, women have a different labour market experience that requires a response to life changes such as having children and caring for wider family/whānau.

Women as a workforce are currently under-employed, unemployed or under-utilised at a higher rate than men.  One in three employed women work part-time, and of those part-time working women, one in five is under-employed.  Barriers to fully ulitising women’s skills include the need for flexible work, part-time work, and managing childcare demands.

Women make up the majority of those in caring roles

McKinsey Global Institute (2015) found 75 percent of unpaid care is undertaken by women; the OECD (2014) noted that women typically spend between two to ten times more time on care work, than men. The last Time Use survey undertaken in New Zealand in 2009/10 found women spent approximately four hours 20 minutes on unpaid work, while men undertook two hours and 32 minutes. Information was not collected on whether this is by choice. The expectation is still that women will undertake essential unpaid work, particularly the primary caregivers for children, ageing relatives, and those with disabilities.

Unpaid work perpetuates gender inequality

Although unpaid work makes an important contribution to the economy and plays a pivotal role in society and to individuals and communities, it is not visible, widely understood, recognised, or acknowledged, as ‘real’ work. Where women shoulder most of the responsibility for unpaid care work, they are less likely to be engaged in paid employment, and those who are active in the labour market are more likely to be limited to part-time or informal employment, and earn less than their male peers. Societal expectation is still that women will undertake essential unpaid work, particularly the primary caregivers for children, ageing relatives, and those with disabilities.

The historic undervaluation of paid work that has mostly been done by women, especially domestic, and care and support work, is intrinsically linked to the marginalisation and undervaluation of women’s unpaid work. This issue is recognised in the Gender Pay Principles (Principle 3), including the combination of unpaid care work and the undervaluation of women’s paid work caused by pay equity issues, which impacts on the gender pay gap.

The Ministry for Women’s research shows that, while mothers in paid work suffer a ‘motherhood gap’ which increases the longer they stay out of the workforce, mothers who were in low-paid, or no-paid, work before becoming parents face an ‘employment gap’(Sin et al., 2018).

As a result, women are disadvantaged in areas such as pay, progression, and security of employment. Women often experience decreased earnings when they return to the paid workforce from career breaks, they often experience difficulty getting their careers back on track, or getting into sustainable employment. All of this has a significant impact on women’s lifetime earnings, financial security, and their capacity for retirement savings, which are substantially reduced in comparison to men.

The Ministry’s work in this area includes:

Building the evidence and promoting discussion

We have commissioned series of essays, an Unpaid work literature review 2019, and a literature scan from a Pacific perspective, looking at differing aspects of unpaid work from a variety of cultural perspectives and work-related settings.

We want to hear what you think about unpaid work in New Zealand. Email us at 

Understanding the policy levers that impact on unpaid work

The impact of women’s unpaid work has not been included in policy and/or investment decisions in New Zealand. Projections suggest that the amount of unpaid care needed could more than double in the next 30 years as the population ages. Ways to recognise women’s unpaid work in policy development and investment decisions could include:[1]

  • introducing a regular measurement of women’s contribution to unpaid work 
  • introducing gender analysis in all policy development
  • introducing gender budgeting and gender mainstreaming that analyses the impacts (positive, negative or unintended) of budget decisions on women[2]
  • gaining a better understanding of the impact of unpaid work on the wider economy
  • recognising the links between valuing unpaid work and better valuing paid work that has been undervalued, including women-dominated work affected by pay equity issues, as well as appropriately valuing so-called, ‘low-skilled’ work
  • better understanding and measuring the unpaid work for all women in New Zealand, including cultural perspectives from Māori and Pacific, and other cultural and ethnic minorities
  • improving and normalising family-friendly working conditions that enable parents to balance their working hours and caring responsibilities. E.g. flexible work and part-time working arrangements for all positions and employees, without adversely affecting the security of employment arrangements, and increasing paid parental leave (for mothers and fathers)
  • ensuring access to affordable childcare, and care for older family members, to allow for better work-life balance
  • scoping jobs and allocating work in a way that positively recognises and rewards the skills and experience gained through unpaid and/or caring work
  • creating workplace environments that support and encourage men’s participation in unpaid and/or caring work.

[2] There are two major levers governments have in gender budgeting – tax measures (such as tax advantaged savings plans) and direct expenditures (such as welfare, childcare, old age support)