When ‘helping’ doesn’t count: What’s behind the underreporting of women’s work?

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Mujer Rural Honduras
Woman in rural community, Honduras / Angels Masó - World Bank

“She helps me all the time”. That’s what a 45-year-old male farmer in the Community Las Tablas, in Honduras, answered when asked about his wife’s work. His point is clear: She helps him to conduct ‘his’ business. 

This perspective – which is shared by women and men - matters for the accurate measurement of female labor force participation in a given country, for poverty measurement and policymaking as shown in our recent paper Underestimating Women's Economic Engagement in Rural Honduras. We find that surveys that aim to measure employment and economic engagement, especially in rural areas, need to take into account local (gendered) definitions of work.

Concerned about the accuracy in measuring women’s economic engagement and to better understand female employment in rural areas, we conducted a qualitative study in Honduras to assess how well standard survey questions were identifying women’s economic activities. Interviews were conducted with men and women in 2018 in six rural communities in the south and west of the country. 

Our interviews began with the same survey questions used in Honduras to measure employment (one asking if the individual worked and the other asking if the individual looked for work); these were followed by a series of open questions to better understand the day to day activities of participants, as well as their views of work, employment, and household tasks. 


Understanding the local definition of work 

Our key finding is that women underreport their engagement in economic activities - both production for household consumption and activities for which they receive monetary renumeration . Most interviewed women responded ‘no’ to the survey questions used to measure economic activity; even though they later described having realized activities for pay (including in services and commerce) or activities that, while not paid, are considered economic activities – such as working in agriculture (watering, harvesting, and cleaning the production) and engaging in subsistence production activities like collection of firewood and livestock or poultry rearing. Men, on the other hand, unequivocally responded ‘yes’ to the household survey questions on economic activity despite primarily working in subsistence agriculture.
There are two explanations behind the observed discrepancies. 

First, local gender norms result in women and men each identifying with specific spheres of life. Women commonly are associated with the private sphere – the domestic sphere – while men are associated with the public sphere, which in a rural context implies the agricultural sector. Consequently, when working in agriculture, women are often seen as providing support to men. Some agricultural tasks, requiring fewer or no assets or investment, are perceived as being within the domestic sphere and thus part of women’ household tasks. For example, chickens and vegetable gardens are perceived to belong to the ‘house’ and consequently are a woman’s responsibility. 

Second, we find that definitions of ‘work’ affect how women (and men) conceptualize women’s tasks. In order for an activity to be considered work, it needs to: 
•    be conducted physically outside the home; 
•    be in exchange for money; 
•    entail sufficient time commitment. 


What are the implications of mismeasuring women’s work?

An important lesson that emerges from this study is that, in order to measure employment and economic engagement, surveys need to consider how ‘work’ is understood locally, especially as it relates to gender. 

Being diligent with follow-up questions and including a detailed list of frequently underreported activities are important tools implemented as part of an updated approach to asking these questions. Also, interviewer training should emphasize these challenges. But even with rephrasing of questions and activity lists, an updated household survey in Honduras continues to find labor participation of women below what we would expect.

Considering that “household tasks” often include economic activities and the number of women who report not being economically active because they spend too much time on household tasks, we estimate that the female labor force participation rate in rural Honduras is underestimated by 6 to 23 percentage points 


Simulations of hypothetical rural female labor force participation rates considering women who report excessive housework as reason for not searching for employment


Simulations of hypothetical rural female labor force participation rates considering women who report excessive housework as reason for not searching for employment
Source: Muller and Sousa (2020). Each of the three simulations assign employment to women who fit the following conditions: 1) she reports being too busy with household tasks as the reason for not searching for work, 2) she is not enrolled in school, and 3) there are no children under the age of 1 in the household. Simulation 1 applies only to spouses of a household head with an agricultural enterprise; Simulation 2 applies to other rural women who are either household heads or spouses of the household head; Simulation 3 applies to other rural women beyond spouses and household heads.


These policy implications of mismeasurement call for survey modifications and cleaner ways to gather data of women’s economic engagement. It is important to encourage countries and other providers of economic statistics to report all types of work according to the International Labor Organization guidelines. Engagement across all types of work, including unpaid activities for household consumption, should be included and discussed when designing interventions and policies.


Liliana Sousa

Senior Economist, Poverty Global Practice, World Bank

Miriam Muller

Senior Social Scientist with the Poverty Global Practice at the World Bank

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