If you are born female in a developing country, long walks to fetch clean water for your family are likely to be on your daily to-do list. And if you grow up an Indian woman, you will probably settle for a life with six hours of unpaid housework every day – more than six times as much as your male counterpart. 

Women and girls around the world still share the uneven burden of domestic work. Even in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD )countries, women spend twice the amount of time on average than men on routine housework and caregiving. These statistics provide a glimpse into the global gender gap that leaves women with far fewer advantages than men. However, there’s hope. If we work towards equal distribution of formal and informal work by redistributing labour and gender roles, we can get closer to reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goal number five – closing the gender gap by 2030.

In the annual Global Opportunity Report – a collaboration between Sustainia, DNV GL and UN Global Compact – we identify sustainable business opportunities that have the ability to turn around some of the biggest global challenges of our time. This year, addressing the risk of rising inequality, we explored the opportunity of breaking the spell of disparate time burdens on women. 

The potential of time and labour-saving innovations

As indicated, time – or lack thereof – is a huge barrier for gender equality, particularly in the developing world. Yet new technologies and solutions have the ability to free up hours in women’s daily routine, which may otherwise be devoted to carrying water, sweeping the room and looking after children.

The Desolenator represents such a solution. This small solar-driven device can desalinate and purify up to 15 litres of water a day, which is enough to keep a family hydrated. It requires very little maintenance, has a lifespan of 20 years, and can save hour-long quests for clean water. It is estimated that women around the world spend 200 million hours every day collecting and carrying fresh water. Freeing up this time would allow for more education and formal work opportunities.

Another innovation comes from the social enterprise GreenChar, which uses agricultural waste to produce low-cost charcoal briquettes. The briquettes are cheaper, more energy dense, and last longer than regular coal. Switching to these near-smokeless alternatives not only reduces the risk of respiratory illness, but also saves time on cooking and cleaning up the soot in the kitchen, for which most women are responsible.

Meanwhile, Totohealth seeks to alleviate the burden of family caregiving through mobile technology. Its inexpensive, personalised SMS and voice technology platform helps women track their child’s vaccination schedule and clinic appointments, while providing nutrition and family planning advice. These services not only reduce maternal and child mortality, but also ease child care for mothers in low-income communities.

Solutions such as Desolen­ator, GreenChar and Totohealth save time, energy and resources, thereby allowing women to spend more time on education and formal work. Moreover, they represent a good business case. In a survey of 5,500 business leaders around the world conducted for the Global Opportunity Report, the vast majority saw great business potential in relieving women and girls of housework and caregiving chores. This also indicates a growing market for smart appliances, which have the capacity to address social challenges with technology and innovation. 

Virgin Unite, sustainability, GreenChar

Sharing the burden and breaking down gender norms

Even though technology can take us far on the winding road towards gender equality, we must not forget the root of the problem. Merely making it easier for a woman to collect fresh water and cook doesn’t address the problem of why she is the one responsible for it in the first place. We must remember that time and labour-saving solutions are not a luxury but a necessity for women, and for society, to progress. They benefit individuals, families and communities alike, but their full potential for closing the “chore gap” will only be unleashed if men and women share housework more equally. This problem is historically and culturally rooted, which obviously makes it much more complex. Yet there are already efforts to break down gender norms. Initiatives such as gender-neutral advertising, low-cost and subsidised childcare, and better labour market conditions for pregnant women all take us closer to equal opportunities for women and men. 

McKinsey Global Institute estimates that if as many women as men took part in the formal economy, $28T would be added to the global GDP. It is no secret then that easing the burden of housework on women is in everybody’s interest. However, if we are to close the gender gap completely, we must work continuously to break down gender norms that bar women from achieving their goals. Over 190 UN nations have agreed to eradicate gender inequality in 13 years. If we want to succeed, men and women will need to pick up the broom together – for equality’s sake.

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