According to the OECD Development Centre, it is estimated that across the globe, women carry out two to ten times more unpaid care than men. This unwritten expectation that women should carry out these tasks is long-standing. Gender stereotypes and norms have become deeply entrenched in society’s psyche. This article examines what unpaid care is, why it is undervalued, the burden of unpaid care affects women, and how we can begin to equally redistribute household tasks.
What is Unpaid Care?
The performance of unpaid care within the household poses one of the largest gender gaps. However, it is often forgotten about and left out of policies.
Unpaid care refers to activities performed for members of the household for free. Unpaid care is often referenced to either be direct or indirect. Direct unpaid care indicates caring for members of the household, this can include taking care of family members who are old or those who are sick and ill. Indirect care refers to tasks such as cleaning, childcare, cooking, collecting water, or gardening. Both direct and indirect unpaid care must be viewed as that of work. This is because the tasks mentioned could have been carried out by a hired external person who would have received payment for doing these tasks.
Valuing Unpaid Care
As stated, unpaid care can involve varied tasks and often require a lot of skill. However, unfortunately, unpaid care is highly undervalued by society as it is implied to be that of ‘easy’ work. Another reason domestic and care work are often undervalued and dismissed is the capitalist mindset. Capitalistic systems undervalue activities and people not directly contributing to the economy. Often going unseen, unpaid care plays a vital role in the development, well-being, economy, infrastructure, and public services.
According to the United Nations, unpaid care is valued to be between 10% and 39 % of the Gross Domestic Product and therefore contributes more to the economy than the manufacturing or transportation sectors. Without unpaid care at home, many sectors would simply grind to a halt. Yet, women’s contribution to unpaid care is invisible and dismissed.
“Unpaid care work is indispensable to the development of the economy and societies and is central to human well-being.”
Unpaid care is not only fundamental to the physical functioning of the family but also its members’ well-being. Women will often be responsible for raising and caring for children providing essential socialization for children to move on to education.
In addition to this, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how heavy the burden of unpaid care has fallen on women. The closing of many workplaces due to national lockdowns has increased women’s work within the home. The shutting of schools resulted in the creation of more responsibility for women to ensure their children’s education was not devastatingly impacted. Women’s situations can get even more complex if they become ill with the virus and unpaid care cannot be taken over by other members.
Furthermore, as women make up more than 70% of workers in the health and social care sector, not only have women been more at risk of contracting the virus due to lack of effective protective gear, but many women carry this ‘double burden’ as they are still also expected to carry out unpaid care at home. Many have taken this further and suggested that women typically carry out a ‘triple shift’ which implies women partake in not only paid work but also unpaid domestic work and emotional support for members. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how crucial unpaid care is for members of the family and society to survive during a pandemic.
Discrimination starts from a Young Age
As previously mentioned, the burden of unpaid care and domestic work heavily falls upon women. Understanding why this expectation exists can be viewed by understanding the responsibility young girls have within households. Undertaking activities of unpaid care can begin as young as five years old. Indeed girls aged 5-14 years are estimated to spend 40% more time on chores such as collecting firewood, cooking and cleaning than boys. The socialized expectation that girls should carry out unpaid care within the house can also be viewed as an obstacle for girls attending an education. As a result of these ingrained gender norms, many poor communities will only send their sons to school and girls will instead stay at home to learn how to carry out household tasks for their future.
However, even when girls do attend school, a Plan international study pointed to how girls are expected to continue this unpaid work into school as a cleaner or carer. Some girls reported that if they did not follow this expectation they were punished, and in some cases this punishment was violent. The way in which girls are expected to continue unpaid care at school not only affects girls’ job aspirations but socializes boys in schools that girls undertaking unpaid care are the ‘norms’.
The Burden of Unpaid Care on Women
Limits Women’s Economic Empowerment
Carrying the responsibility of unpaid care within the household dramatically limits paid opportunities for women. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 606 million women are not in the labour force because of unpaid care responsibilities. Spending time within the house and taking care of family members means that women have less time to develop their skills in the workforce and less time to develop a career. As a result, if women do seek employment they are more likely to be in part-time work with highly precarious pay.
“There is no such thing as a woman who doesn’t work. There is only a woman who isn’t paid for her work”- (Caroline Criado-Perez)
Creates Power Imbalance Between Men and Women
Not only does the burden of unpaid care have detrimental effects on women’s aspirations in the workplace and girls’ education, but it can also make women more vulnerable to violence. Research has implied a link between economic hardship and VAWG. Women may be trapped in the household and unable to escape their abuser as they become economically dependent on the main earner. Unpaid care, therefore, leaves women with little empowerment to make their own decisions, and in some cases leaves them in vulnerable positions.
Also, view Domestic Work and Matrimonial Property
Creates Emotional and Mental Stress
As discussed above, unpaid care performed by women plays a central role in the economy by providing family members with child care, meals, food, cleanliness, and emotional support. However, unpaid care not only hinders women’s opportunities in the workforce and their aspirations, but it also causes enormous emotional labour for women which goes unnoticed, unmentioned and unrecognized. Emotional labour is the invisible mental stress faced by women of every generation to make sure the days run smoothly, the household is efficiently managed, and children are happy and healthy. It’s the mental energy spent on managing and micromanaging, all without rocking the boat.
“Women aren’t fed up because we expect too much. We’re fed up because we’re told we shouldn’t expect anything at all. We should
just let it go as if it were so easy.
As if our work were so easily disposable.”- Gemma Hartley
Recommended Action to Reduce the Burden of Unpaid Work on Women
Increasingly more conversations have attempted to offer solutions to the unfair burden of unpaid work on women. Here are some of the suggested recommendations:
Share unpaid work equally.
This involves shifting gender norms and encouraging men to partake in household jobs. It also heavily involves passing policies that aim to redistribute the burden of unpaid care. A policy that can have a great effect on equal distribution of unpaid care includes parental-leave policies. Allowing men and women to share childcare results in more women in the workplace, reduced gender pay gaps, and of course, more hours of unpaid care carried out by men. Many countries are still far away from equally sharing paid parental leave, however, countries such as Japan, which allows 30 weeks of paid leave for new fathers, are leading the way for equally redistributing care in the household and shifting gender norms.
Reduce household labour.
It is possible to reduce household labour by fully investing in a working system that provides clean running water, electricity, and transportation. This will have the effect of reducing household labour such as tasks of collecting firewood or water which have laid in the hands of women.
Measuring unpaid care.
As discussed above, the importance of unpaid care for the functioning of the economy and society is vital. We must therefore highly value this skilled work and not dismiss it. In doing so, we must begin to measure unpaid work and provide solutions for ensuring that this work is not unpaid. There are many ideas as to how this measuring can be done effectively and systematically. For example, if we were to value unpaid care at a minimum wage, it would add $10 trillion USD to global economic output. This could help create new jobs and begin to lift many communities out of poverty.
The Real Change
Unpaid care is still very much a conversation that is being driven by women’s rights activists and many solutions have been posed by feminist economists. We acknowledge that states must begin to place this at the centre of tackling gender inequality on the whole and fully incorporating it into policy. However, we also recognise that along with changing policies, a lot of work needs to be done in shifting mindset and attitude. Women’s role as caregiver is very deeply rooted in the patriarchal mindset. Even today, in some communities, participating in cooking or domestic chores is taboo for men. Thus, if we don’t work on dismantling the oppressive culture which constantly tries to disempower women, the progress will remain slow. Men should share unpaid care not as a favour to women, but as a natural responsibility. Alleviating the burden of unpaid care on women can give women more economic empowerment, the power to make decisions about their education and future and use their potential to the fullest.