Valuable yet undervalued: The care sector and the contribution of women

Economic development concerns itself with indicators of living standards such as poverty, literacy rates and life expectancy. However, invisible to all of this is the care sector and unpaid work. Those who are professionally employed in the visible care sector, such as those working as social workers, care home assistants or community support are not the focus of this discussion, as they are financially compensated for their work. All households require housework, on the whole, this gets done and goes unnoticed. Why is this? Due to the rigidity of capitalist institutions and norms - "work" is defined as repeated tasks under an employer that generates monetary value. Despite requiring skills, experience, and training - volunteering or doing housework under the definition does not count as “work” and therefore goes undervalued.


The issues caused by this status quo are plain to see.


Firstly, from a more overtly feminist perspective, due to the male breadwinner family model, most of the housework is currently undertaken by women. In a 2019 study, women do more housework than men in 93% of British households – even when both are working full-time [1]. Therefore, it is primarily the contributions of women to society that is unrecognised by mainstream economics; this is extremely unfair. Just because there is no payment for doing household chores doesn't mean it's inherently less valuable than doing any other work that is financially compensated. The exclusion of skills such as housework gives the impression that it isn’t valuable or because it is somehow ‘not real’ work. We should all be asking the question as to why this needs to be the case. The prolonged marginalisation of the economically invisible work performed by women contributes negatively to their societal image and continues to embed caustic norms about women and their relationship with work.


Secondly, from a human development perspective, the exclusion of care work has negative effects on the measuring of development itself. Economic development studies measure a wide range of indicators; however, the chosen variables are often more concrete - which is easier to measure and track (such as life expectancy or income). However, upon the inclusion of care work, the health of a developing economy can be more accurately re-evaluated. The chances are it would really brighten up the picture as these invisible sectors could be quite strong – like in the case of Vietnam. Still blighted by the war, a large proportion of their population have genetically inherited diseases, and thus require more carers [2]. Due to this unique set of circumstances, many Vietnamese people still have a lot of caring responsibilities alongside their regular nine to five. Or even if the size of the care sector turns out to be lower, the resources and development programmes can look to include these sectors such that they improve. So, either way, incorporating care work within economic development data provides a more truthful representation of wellbeing.


With the flaws of the current system being obvious and the benefits of including care work properly demonstrated. It makes sense to suggest some possible measures of these variables. As aforementioned, “care” is not the easiest factor to measure, however, it is very much achievable.


The first potential indicator is ‘time’. We all have a maximum time of 24 hours per day. Your disposable time is all the time you have left after you have paid your ‘time taxes’, such as work or sleep. It’s all the time you have to yourself. Due to the current model, with women doing most of the housework, the amount of ‘time taxes’ they pay is a lot higher; so generally women are more time impoverished [3]. Women have a ‘double burden’ in that they are expected to work and then do housework too. If women were to stop working, then the family would be worse off monetarily – especially those of single-parent households, and others lower on the income ladder. If women were to drastically change their housework habits, then their domestic life could quickly fall into disarray and disorganisation. There is much expected of women in the public and private spheres; due to the invisibility of the latter, solutions are quite novel and embryonic. However, by viewing it through the lens of time, you can bypass the monetary aspect. This aspect of time can be tracked and measured, and the data gained can be used to design interventions to rebalance the work here. One example would be to increase the time taxes on the time rich. In Sweden, each parent gets a minimum amount of parental leave that they legally have to take. This puts the father in a much more active role around the house and redistributes some of the familial responsibilities, beyond the male breadwinner model.


Another measure of care work is the already established Gender Care Empowerment Index. This measures the direct comparison between paid and unpaid hours of men and women, and more specifically how much men participate in the "feminine sphere" (i.e. housework) and vice versa [4]. This widespread measure is really useful as it actively includes men and their contributions and thus should be recommended for use when studying the male breadwinner model. Moreover, it can be used to break down the binary spheres and allow for more fluidity. The glaring issue is that it's self-reported data, which can make it either unreliable or inaccurate. The subjectivity allows for smaller data confidence. One person's definition of childcare could be merely being in the same house as the children, as they are “supervising” them; another might require active attention and play. These discrepancies means it should be used as guidance and not hard fact.


Conclusively, there is still a way to go when it comes to mainstream economics and incorporating the valuable yet unvalued work that women across the world do. However, the fact that the issue is starting to garner more attention is important in getting the ball rolling towards a more gender-balanced economy in and out of the workplace.


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