Redefining Care Work: Finding a Better Standard

This is part two in a series on care work. Check out part one here

The gender gap we see in care work has historically remained unexamined and undervalued.  In our first look at the nature and history of care giving, we observed the importance and benefits that care work holds for society. Unfortunately, the great sacrifices women and girls have made in areas of income, time, leisure and health in the pursuit of care work have all too often gone unsupported by government and civil society organizations. This article will seek to continue our discussion, and to offer solutions on how we can better support and provide for care givers, both at home and abroad.

A major part of reducing the increased burden on women and girls to provide care related goods will be willingness for men to share in the work. As we previously observed, in the United States, women take on about twice as much care work as men. In some countries, women have been measured to take on up to 90 percent of care work. Disproportionate responsibilities for childcare, cleaning and cooking among others services inhibit the ability for women and girls to participate in the formal economic sector. According to the World Bank, over the last 30 years, women’s participation in the labor force has actually declined. How, then, do we disseminate work equally between the sexes so that women are able to advance?

The challenge of equalizing care work is a bigger hurdle in some contexts than in others. For example, 15 countries around the world still require that wives ask their husbands for permission to work. Contexts such as these will require a more tangible enforcement of women’s rights beyond the simple sharing of statistics. It is necessary that we begin to dismantle the stigmas surrounding care work, however, and education is a good place to begin. There are two types of education that need to take place: education that results in aspiration, and education that challenges the paradigms of leaders.

Disproportionate responsibilities for childcare, cleaning and cooking...inhibit the ability for women and girls to participate in the formal economic sector.

Both girls and boys should receive an education that allows them to dream from an early age. This requires that both genders be encouraged to pursue careers that are not gendered. We see a massive lack of women in the United States, for example, participating in STEM jobs (science, technology, engendering and math). Encouraging children to not only be well rounded, but to one day participate fully in the career world can help challenge traditions of gender biased care work. Additionally, adults, especially those who hold power and influence need an orientation to not only the importance or care work, but to the benefit of having women in the workforce. When mothers bring home a paycheck, for example, that money is much more likely to be used for well being expenses within the home, such as food security, school funds or healthcare. A diverse workforce directly benefits the next generation through not only increased stability in the present, by bringing a new, community-minded agenda to the table.

For countries that are failing to make progress on the care gap, policy changes may be necessary to insure that the potential of women and girls is not being interrupted. Some countries have already taken this step, and directly invested money into the lives of their female workforces. These nations, including Sweden, Finland and Norway (among others in the European Union) have seen great rewards as a result of their policy decisions and financial commitments. According to an article in the Shriver Report, “They provided stipends for child care, generous paid parental leave, high-quality early childhood education, and even social security credit for the first years of caring for a child at home.” Many of these countries have also adopted caregiver credit programs as a form of social security. Today these countries have not only closed significant gender gaps, but rank among the top 10 countries in economic competitiveness. By allowing all of their citizens to participate fully in society, they have harnessed a great source of productivity, and become worldwide leaders.

Other countries are beginning to realize the negative consequences of undervaluing care work. In President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address, he vouched for a tax package that would triple the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. This credit would help families with the costs of caring for children who are under thirteen. In his speech, he extoled the value of child-care, saying, “It's not a nice-to-have—it's a must-have… it's time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us." While it remains to be seen what traction his proposed agenda will gain, raising concern the over the negative externalities of burdensome care work is a step in the right direction.

There are a few additional areas for practical improvement that deserve to be mentioned. One of which is the potential for investing in labor saving technologies and infrastructure, as prescribed in Bread for the World’s 2015 Hunger Report. These are particularly relevant goals for women and girls in developing countries, who spend a great amount of time on care activities which could be accomplished with greater ease and timeliness if new methods and tools were introduced. A ground well closer to home, for example, could save a family time spend traveling to collect clean water, and free them up to do other things. Additionally, investments in some sort of social protection should also be examined for women, particularly in relation to women’s health. Because women are more likely to take care of the sick, they are more likely to get sick themselves, and development strategists must take this into account moving forward.

We have a threshold in choosing how we will redefine care work as a society. Having learned the complexities and importance of reexamining the traditions surrounding care work, we need to encourage institutions and those in leadership to empower in the women and girls in their midst. Through education, policy changes, and investment, we can actively support the next generation, and commend care givers for the value of their work that has gone unnoticed for far too long. 

-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.