Women and Work: Unintended Consequences

Women and Work: Unintended Consequences

By Patricia M. Davidson

As I have checked into a number of hotels over the last year I am encouraged by the option not to have my room cleaned daily. Forgoing this service is often compensated by vouchers or additional loyalty points. This is an important strategy in conserving water and energy and fostering behavior change. As delightful as they are, clean sheets every day are really not necessary and I am readily willing to forgo this luxury for the environment. The hotel industry is to be highly commended for this contribution to the sustainability agenda. But on reflection, I am likely benefiting from someone’s loss of income.

It is commonly said, “no good deed goes unpunished.” This highly laudable intention to protect the environment, through decreasing room servicing, is potentially having an unintended consequence—less work for women who commonly serve as housekeepers. Housekeeping is commonly considered women’s work, describing activities commonly expected to be undertaken by women, such as cooking and cleaning.

Across the globe, more women than men work in vulnerable, low-paid, and lower status jobs, such as housekeeping. UNWomen reports that as of 2013, 49.1 percent of the world’s working women were in vulnerable employment, often unprotected by labor legislation, compared to 46.9 percent of men, and it is likely that much of this work is in the domestic sector. We also know that women earn 60 to 75 percent of men’s wages, and in vulnerable sectors this differential is most pronounced.

Women, particularly those living in poverty, are more vulnerable to geopolitical, economic, and environmental instability. Therefore shifts in workforce trends can have adverse impacts. My point is not to disregard the importance of caring for the environment but to cast the spotlight on the invisibility of women’s work.

Years ago, at a 2000 meeting of the International Council on Women’s Health Issues in San Francisco, I was highly impressed by a speaker who encouraged us to leave tips in our hotel room. We were reminded that commonly it is the men, such as porters, who are front of house in hotels. Few of us would not tip a porter for helping us with our luggage. But leaving a tip for the housekeeper, commonly a woman, is not necessarily at the front of our minds. Women’s work is often invisible—in both the formal and informal sector.

We need to ensure that all workers are valued, respected, and compensated. As ways of working change, the importance of education and empowerment become more important. Where women work, economies are more robust and children healthier. Gakidou and colleagues in a Lancet study report in a study undertaken in 219 countries from 1970 to 2009 that for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5 percent. Many women educate their children through the money they earn.

Ensuring opportunities for women to work and be compensated appropriately is crucial in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and foster peace and prosperity. Considering the intersection of activities across the 17 goals is important in ensuring continuity and achievement of overarching goals.  Monitoring for unintended consequences will be an important part of achieving this vision by 2030.

Read more:

UNWomen Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment

United Nations: What are the Sustainable Development Goals? 


trish_blog-shotPatricia M. Davidson, PhD, MEd, RN, is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and a fellow of the Australian College of Nursing, the American Heart Association, the Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association, and the American Academy of Nursing. She is counsel general of the International Council on Women’s Health Issues and actively involved in the international activities of Sigma Theta Tau International. Follow her on Twitter (@nursingdean).


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