(WOMENSENEWS)—What if the solution to poverty and inequality was an overhauling of taken-for-granted economics?

This is what many feminist economists have been arguing for decades.

And that’s why many of us are excited to see our argument taken up by philanthropist Melinda Gates.

In a recent interview with feminist arts newsletter Lenny, Gates said she’d like to see unpaid labor (read: mostly women’s care work) counted as part of the gross domestic product, or GDP, the most common measure by which countries count the sum total of good and services.

The GDP comment follows her announcement last month in the Gates’ agenda-setting annual letter that she has her eye on women’s “time poverty,” the situation where women have substantially less down time than men because in addition to paid work, they also do unpaid care work in their households and communities.

Gates’ announcement delighted feminists the world over — there was certainly no shortage of fist-pumping in my house, while I watched my male partner do the dishes.

Few doubt the Gates Foundation’s capacity for tech-driven social innovation, and agree with the approach or not, it’s hard to deny the leading couple’s gigantic bully pulpit on development. Harnessing the power of capital, the foundation is a major player in shaping what’s on the global agenda and how the most pressing issues get addressed. I’ve been on the receiving end of one such endowment: the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, established in 2000 to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others, funded my Ph.D. research on the exact topic of this article.

What surprised (and thrilled) me is that Gates’ letter drew on a rich and seriously underappreciated strand of feminist thought, activism and research on the care economy.

Those of us in this area hold that the unequal distribution of under- and unpaid care work is at the root of gender inequity and chronic poverty. This position rests on a big foundation of research on the “care economy,” a term that refers to the production and consumption of care.

Bedrock of Well-Being

Care work is the bedrock of individual, family and community well-being. It includes packing lunches, doing laundry, collecting water and fuel, feeding babies, changing diapers, nursing the sick and elderly, supporting the disabled, calling family members on birthdays and Christmas (maintaining kinship ties), offering emotional support to friends, teaching children, growing food and grocery shopping.

This work happens in households, schools, hospitals, retirement homes, day cares, soup kitchens and community centers all over the world.

Women do more care work than do men, across the board. But within this statistic, race, ethnicity, nationality and class also come into play — poorly remunerated care work is often done by people of color, immigrants and indigenous women.

There is a rich history of feminist thought on why care work is so unequally distributed, and what we should do about it. In 1972 a small pink pamphlet called “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community,” by Italian and British feminists Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, argued that capitalist economies relied on women’s unpaid domestic work.

For instance, a factory laborer is available for work because someone else is at home doing the cooking, cleaning and child-raising; activities that are necessary and highly time consuming.

Dalla Costa and James suggested that housework is work and that housewives should be paid for it, a provocative argument that informed the Wages For Housework Campaign. The campaign gained traction in places as disparate as the U.S., where it evolved into International Black Women for Wages for Housework, and Venezuela, where in 1999 feminist policymakers and activists succeeded in changing the constitution to recognize women’s housework as economically productive and entitle poor housewives to a pension.

In 1988, New Zealander and feminist economist Marilyn Waring asked why national accounting systems considered oil spills and war as economically productive, while caring was given no value. Waring showed that in failing to recognize care work as work, women’s needs as laborers are easily neglected in policymaking. Her argument for counting women’s care work in GDP calculations was so forceful that United Nations eventually redefined its system of national accounts.

In her recent interview with Lenny, Gates cited (without citing Waring) this exact argument.

In the early 1990s, Diane Elson famously suggested that international development has a “male bias,” favoring men’s work and life patterns.

Policy Failures

Policies and programs that focus on the formal economy too often fail to account for how care is accomplished, and for the women who do it. For instance, macro-economic development policies that reduce spending on social supports such as universal health care, public day care and social programs, effectively offload responsibility for care onto households.

In order to keep everyone afloat, women end up “picking up the slack,” doing extra care work at home and in their communities. They assume a “double” or “triple shift” of formal and informal labor. The result? Women’s time poverty.

Or, as was the case in many highly developed countries, when some women became “liberated” from unpaid caretaking roles at home and went off to well paid professions, they hired other women (often immigrants and women of color) who got trapped in low wages because their work, historically, was seen as “free.”

The unequal distribution of care work affects women and men globally.

In lower-income settings in particular, care economics can help explain why girls are more likely to leave school early and women do not participate in the formal work economy at the same rate as men. An in highly developed countries, it is a big explanation for the gender wage gap.

So what now? In the Gates Foundation’s annual letter, Gates references the three R’s often discussed in research on care work: Recognize (unpaid work as work), Reduce (the time care work takes) and Redistribute (the responsibility for care work).

Again, this argument is not new but it remains untapped by policymakers. There are implications for how we measure social impact, structure economic policies and design health and development interventions.

Counting unpaid care work as part of GDP is but one example of how we might begin to tip the scales towards equitable social and economic systems. This move not only recognizes the depth of women’s contributions, but also makes it easier to imagine why we should be reducing time spent on unpaid work in the first place.

Perhaps, most importantly, it offers a basis upon which we can argue for the redistribution of the responsibility for care – not only between men and women, but also between households, the private sector and the government. For instance, companies can do their part by instating substantive paid family leave policies that allow employees to care for their dependants and also bring their best to work.

Global health and development organizations like the Gates Foundation can avoid “male bias” by making recognition and reduction of women’s time poverty central to the way they design interventions and measure their impact. Do micro-credit schemes alleviate or exacerbate women’s time poverty?

And the government can do its part by providing high-quality, universal health care, so that care for the sick and elderly doesn’t fall on the shoulders of women.

Rising to these opportunities will require us to look beyond Gates’ letter, to the analytical insights of feminist work on the care economy. And if we address gender inequity in this way, we might just make poverty history too.