Redefining Care Work: The Gender Gap with a Cost

Care giving is vital for the health and progress of a society. It can take on many forms, from raising children or tending to a sick grandparent, to preparing meals and preforming household chores. For a small portion of the population, wealth allows these everyday tasks to be hired out for a cost, but more often than not they fall under the domain of unpaid work.

It's a long standing stereotype that care giving is interchangeable with "women’s work", as women have historically taken on the brunt of unpaid care work.  An article put out by The Shriver Report on the care gap in America reads, “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women devote more than 110 million hours a year to unpaid interactive child care, more than double men’s less than 55 million hours.” In developing countries, and countries with notably patriarchal cultures, the disparities between men and women are even worse. As a result of women’s often inferior, if not negative status around the world today, the massive amount of time devoted to care giving is often dismissed as having minimal economic value for society.

If we live in a society that fully values a major source of their time and energy, it is time that we seriously reconsider how we can seek to empower women as a matter of justice. This article will serve as the first in a two part series, diagnosing an often overlooked problem that directly affects the potential livelihood of every woman and girl today.

We need to provide better for those who have and will devote time to care work – paid and unpaid.

The female workforce has largely been abated from joining in formal economic activities. This is particularly true for women who are in their prime working years, which coincide with the years in which child care responsibilities disproportionately fall. Unpaid care keeps women and girls out of school, and severely impedes their ability to earn any sort of a sustainable income. This not only hinders one's future prospects, but without a chance of being self-sustaining, takes away the possibility of one day achieving independence. The United Nations website summarizes these losses, stating, "Heavy and unequal care burdens may curtail the enjoyment of human rights by women and girls, including their rights to education, work, social security and participation, as well as to rest and leisure." Care giving can also come with unintended consequences. Because women are more likely to look after the sick, they are more likely to become sick themselves, for example. Once we can begin to reach past stereotypes surrounding care work, many of these driving causes of poverty and vulnerability can surface.

A certain standard of living, where health and well-being become harder to access, is only furthered by women's absence in halls of power and different sectors of society. This lack of representation for women's issues only perpetuates norms, and makes progress for women all the more difficult. Female leaders not only set the agenda, but they serve as role models and help others to reimagine the effectiveness of customs and conventions.

Another significant challenge in diagnosing the problem of unpaid care work is being able to represent its full value. Data is drastically lacking in much of the world on how women spend their time, and how the productivity borne out that time goes on to have an impact. Assigning a monetary value to care work asserts that the lifetimes of caretakers are not only visible, but valued. According to Bread for the World’s 2015 Hunger Report, it’s estimated that if unpaid care work was officially counted in a country’s economic output, it would account for, “between 15 percent and 60 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP)”. That same report also concludes that approximately 80 percent of the data we need to further empower women is simply missing, never having been counted. There’s great potential for supporting the burden of unpaid care work if data can be collected and shared with decision makers in power, and those who have been chasing after women’s issues in the humanitarian field all along.  

We need to provide better for those who have and will devote time to care work – paid and unpaid. Its value should not be under or unrepresented. The success of a society hinges on the well-being of its children, and that is a direct product of the care they receive. Not only this, but all forms of care work play a major role in social and economic progress, and therefore, discussions around these issues need to spend more time in the spotlight. While we will continue to explore solutions to the problems that have been presented, let us reassess for ourselves how we have come to define care work, and if we have truly given it the attention it deserves. 

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.