How Much Is Your Invisible Labor Worth?

Weekly Article
LightField Studios /
June 6, 2019

Activists coined the phrase “equal pay for equal work” during the fight for the 1963 Equal Pay Act. Fifty-six years later, the phrase is still making headlines. Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris proposed a policy that would address the gender wage gap in the paid labor market. Other candidates have supported similar action and legislation.

The average woman in the United States makes eighty cents for every dollar her male counterpart makes. These numbers only shrink for women of color, and they exist at every level of education. Yet, as important as these figures are, they also elide all the vital behind-the-scenes work that keeps business and society running smoothly. How much is that labor worth—and what does it have to do with the pay gap?

To answer these questions, I spoke with Amy Westervelt, a writer and the author of the 2018 book Forget “Having it All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It. Westervelt developed the Invisible Labor Calculator so that people, specifically women, could figure out the market value of their uncompensated labor. The calculator uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell users how much they’d pay someone else to do the work that they do for free. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is “invisible labor,” and why should we be talking about it?

It’s the work people, typically women, perform that keeps families and in turn societies going. It’s the “private” labor that keeps many public institutions and workplaces afloat, and it includes everything from hands-on parenting to smaller, more invisible tasks like lunch-making, household budgeting, and keeping the family calendar.

There are the tasks that both parents do, and then there’s a whole additional set of tasks that I call the “third parent tasks,”—all these jobs that feel like enough work for an extra adult in any family, but are usually taken on by just one parent (typically, though not always, by a women).

What inspired you to create this calculator?

Family leave has become an important election issue, and it seemed important to provide visibility into why family leave is necessary. Personally, I believe it should extend to elder care, which could potentially garner additional support. Caregiving in general isn’t supported in this country, in large part because it’s considered labor that should be given freely. Since we live in a capitalist society that only truly values what it can put a price tag on, putting a dollar value to this labor felt important. I like to say it’s unpaid labor, but it’s not free.

Who do you hope will use the calculator, and what do you hope will come out of it?

Everyone! I hope it will help in the shift toward valuing caregiving as actual labor with a tangible, economic value; shifting that thinking is necessary for policy solutions to truly take hold and work. And then even within families, I think it’s helpful for people to understand who’s doing what and what sort of benefit that brings.

You’re an expert on a lot of things—the environment, health, and tech, to name a few. What convinced you to move into this space, with your book, reporting, and now the labor calculator?

Honestly, becoming a mother, seeing how going through childbirth in this country is like taking a time machine back to 1950, and experiencing the impact of the total lack of support for families first hand. I had no maternity leave with my second child, and I was the primary breadwinner, so I took an afternoon off to have a kid and then was weirdly proud of myself for having done so, at which point I realized, “Wow, there’s a lot of dysfunction to unpack here.”

Complicated societal problems also tend to be the thing I always focus on in reporting; there’s a weird thing where motherhood is considered a silly beat, something worthy of personal essays but not actual reporting, and that has been really infuriating to see because actually it’s a topic that encompasses so many aspects of life: health, labor, gender, politics, you name it.

I also think it’s a really important aspect to gender politics that’s often left out. There has historically been a tension between rights for women as individuals and the expectations placed on mothers, and I think it’s really important to understand the interplay between the two and how ideas about motherhood often shape the lives of women—whether they have kids or not.

Several presidential candidates have proposed or supported policy aimed at closing the gender pay gap. Where does invisible labor fit into this conversation, if at all?

The bulk of invisible labor is still performed by women, and it plays a huge role in the gender pay gap. If you have a whole bunch of extra labor to do at home, you’re naturally more encumbered at the office and have less flexibility around work hours, so you’re also less likely to take on a job that might require more hours or responsibilities.

What’s the next step forward?

I would like to see policy discussions take on a different tenor—away from this idea that it’s a generosity to give family leave and more like it’s an economic necessity. I hope it also gets those who do have the money to pay for household help to realize the value of that support as well, which spurs a general sense that caregiving is valuable—not just in an abstract way, but in economic terms as well. Making invisible labor more visible not just in our homes but also in our workplaces would be great, too. And I think that if more people were to talk about their responsibilities outside of work, instead of that seeming like something you should hide, we could also eventually spur some cultural shifts around the issue.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Honestly, it’s ridiculous that, in order to attribute value to something, you have to be able to apply a dollar figure to it, especially in a country in which politicians are constantly talking about “family values.” But that’s where we’re at. And if those same politicians are going to wring their hands about birth rates, they should get a better understanding of what it actually looks like and what it costs to have children in this country—and they should set about improving those conditions.