Written by Emilie Berger, Working Group on Gender Equality

Keywords: Unpaid Care Work, Gender Equality, COVID-19 Pandemic Response

2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which aims to promote gender equality in areas of both public and private life and acts as a global guideline on decreasing inequalities in care work between men and women. Yet, there was little public discourse about it at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which itself exacerbated gender inequalities and greatly augmented female responsibilities in unpaid care. The gender disparity in the distribution of care work is associated with significant socioeconomic consequences, driving gender gaps in labour force participation, the gender wage gap as well as horizontal and vertical segregation in the labour market. This article examines the institutional, cultural and socioeconomic factors which maintain the gender gap in unpaid care work as well as policies which could be adopted to help address them. 

The Gender Care Gap: A Tale as Old as Time

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, women played the primary role in both paid and unpaid care work, contributing to both society and individual households with work that is often undervalued and is not included in employment statistics nor counted as part of GDP. 

According to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) definition, unpaid care work refers to all non-remunerated activities that provide services to address the basic physical and emotional needs of a person. These include (1) direct or relational care to household members, such as long-term care of adults and childcare; (2) domestic work within one’s own household and; (3) community services and help to other households (Addati et al., 2018). 

Following the Industrial Revolution in Europe, work became largely associated with paid work outside the home, and categories such as “work” or “leisure”, which had been created for workers (predominantly men), did not apply to domestic or parental work. This invisibility of care work was linked to the ‘monetarisation’ of the economy: meaning that any work that did not give rise to a financial transaction was considered “unproductive”. While women have always worked, their production of goods and services was often confined to the domestic sphere, and thus undervalued, with their widespread entry into the labour force was only gradually realised after the late 1960s and 1970s. The question of women’s work “outside” the home was also usually presented as an “either/or” dichotomy: either a woman worked at home or “outside”, indirectly implying that housework was optional (Schweitzer, 2002).

While gender disparity in time spent on unpaid care in the EU has narrowed by one hour a day since 2005, a society-wide transition to a “dual earner/ carer” model in which men and women share earning and caring responsibilities remains incomplete. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), 94% of employed women in the EU undertake unpaid care work at least several times per week, compared to 70 % of employed men. The division of work in unpaid housework remains the highest, done by 93 % of women but only 53 % of men on a regular basis. The time spent daily on care work also differs significantly, with employed women spending 3.9 hours per day on care activities, as opposed to 2.6 hours for employed men (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2021). 

Factors Perpetuating Unequal Care Duties 

The main factors linked to gender discrepancies in unpaid care work, which in turn affect women’s employment and participation in the labour force, are personal preferences, gender role conformity and socioeconomic constraints. 

According to ILO estimates, in developed countries gender role conformity challenges women’s participation in the labour market primarily through family non-approval. To evade social isolation or vulnerability, women often adhere to gender norms considered suitable by their families, culture or society. These attitudes toward gender norms create a social order that contributes to women’s unequal burden of care duties and determines their roles throughout the labour force (Addati et al., 2018). In EU member states, the probability of a woman participating in the labour market decreases significantly if a woman is married and faces a lack of affordable childcare facilities. A shortage of (child) care services should be a challenge for the whole family, but because of their assigned status as caregivers, women are disproportionately affected (International Labour Organisation, 2018).

Some economists have argued that the gendered division of labour within households can be explained by the theory of comparative advantage and gains from specialisation. To make households more efficient, labour should be divided according to each member’s experience and investment in human capital. Since men were historically more productive in the market (i.e., they earned higher wages) and women more productive in the household, they specialised along these lines (Becker, 1985). The value of this argument for explaining current gender care disparities in developed countries is, however, limited. Not only have gendered differences in productivity decreased significantly in the last decades – thanks, in part, to technological progress such as birth control – but even when women have a higher level of education and income today, unpaid care work is still not distributed “efficiently” between partners. Being employed part-time does not, for example, considerably increase men’s time spent on unpaid care work (Alonso et al., 2019).

The “Missing Link”

The unequal burden of unpaid care carried by women is not only driving lower female participation in the labour market – keeping 7.7 million women in the EU out of the labour market – but has been identified as the “missing link” in studies on discrimination against women in employment and gender gaps in job satisfaction and level of income (Ferrant et al., 2014). 

From a macroeconomic perspective, the unequal sharing of unpaid care responsibilities also raises questions on employment and GDP growth, with studies showing that a decreased burden of unpaid care activities would increase female participation rates in the labour market. A reduction in the gender care gap could also increase female fertility rates and consequently labour supply and economic growth in the long-run (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2017). 

EIGE research further suggests that in countries with a higher gender gap in time spent by employees in direct care, the unadjusted gender pay gap tends to be larger. This is explained by the fact that the attributes of women’s work affected by unpaid care duties account for a substantial portion of the gender pay gap. Firstly, they reinforce a vertical segregation of labour with women occupying hierarchically lower positions. Women whose jobs are temporary or low-paid tend to spend twice as much time on unpaid care work than women employed in hierarchically higher positions (who are usually able to pay for external care services). Secondly, on a horizontal level, the cultural association of care work as an unpaid and “feminine” activity leads to care occupations being socially undervalued, paying considerably less than jobs in sectors dominated by men (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2021). 

Reducing the Gender Gap in Unpaid Care Work

Recognising and valuing the disproportionate efforts that women undertake in unpaid care work, even when working a paying career, is an important step toward realising the potential and relevance of women’s labour. Government policies should focus on encouraging flexibility in working structures and conditions among both men and women. 

There are two different forms of policy measures that may be taken in this respect. Firstly, governments can implement programs to encourage a fairer distribution of unpaid care duties within the home. Secondly, governments can promote the transition of unpaid household caring tasks to paid workers. This “externalisation” is especially important in light of projected increasing care needs in the coming decades due to long-term care of the elderly.

How to Address the “Motherhood Penalty”? 

There is a wide body of literature suggesting that raising children is correlated with a so-called “motherhood penalty” and a “fatherhood premium” in earnings. In fact, having small children (0 to 6 years old) in the household is positively correlated with men’s income, whereas there is no significant correlation with women’s income. This is most likely caused by an increased discrepancy in gender roles: mothers’ more important role in unpaid care relative to fathers’ greater labour market participation. Career breaks due to childcare often confine women to part-time, irregular, insecure, and low-paying positions, which are believed to offer greater flexibility than regular jobs and help women balance paid work and unpaid care (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2021). 

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly noticeable in this sense. Referred to by the OECD as a “shecession” or “momcession”, the pandemic-related recession not only disproportionately affects women, but women’s job losses are largely related to motherhood. As schools and childcare facilities closed due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, mothers often had to take on the burden of additional unpaid care of their children, facing increased labour market penalties and negative effects on mental health and well-being (OECD, 2021a). Mothers of children under the age of 12 were nearly three times more likely than fathers to report they performed all or most of the added unpaid care duties. Mothers leaving the labour market was substantially correlated with a high unpaid care work burden. While women’s work hours declined across the board, nations with well-designed care leave policies were typically able to avoid more drastic reductions in women’s work hours (OECD, 2021b). 

This is indicative of the important role that care facilities (and their affordability) play for women’s responsibilities in unpaid care work. The use of external childcare rises with household wealth– in the EU, it increases from 28 percent in the poorest quartile to 45 percent in the richest quartile. Particularly in countries with high childcare costs, the affordability of facilities often depends on a household’s earnings. Conversely, more affordable childcare facilities help parents from all socioeconomic backgrounds to compete and participate more fully in the labour market, resulting in higher earnings (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2021). 

Governments should therefore increase public investment in high-quality care infrastructure, employment retention programs as well as flexible working arrangements, such as parental leave – which should be open to both parents. To avoid the risk of engendering gender roles and the unequal sharing of entitlements between parents, the adoption of entitlement quotas (a non-transferable part of parental leave that is wasted if not used by the father) should be encouraged. Studies show that if fathers take longer parental leave, the gender disparity in long-term caregiving behaviour will also narrow (Evertsson, 2014).

Externalisation Is Not Enough… Towards a Re-evaluation of Care Work

As European governments are under pressure to find both sustainable and affordable models for the care of adults with a disability or the elderly, externalisation of care to paid labour is becoming ever more relevant. Yet, outsourcing the cost of unpaid care work to paid care workers – who are predominantly women – is not enough if it is not followed by a systemic and structural revaluation of care itself. 

An important factor for the decline of overall time among women devoted to care work is the increasing externalisation to professionals of care tasks. This process carries several risks. It can result in “global care chains” or denationalisation where women externalise care work to other women on the “basis of power axes, such as gender, ethnicity, social class, and place of origin” (Pérez Orozco, 2009, p. 4). Not only does this tend to result in more unpaid (albeit different) female care work, such as budgeting and planning of care chores, but it also reinforces the traditional notion of care as “a woman’s” duty, with care work delegated to other women outside the home. These occupations, which have historically not been part of ‘productive’ or ‘paid’ activities, are socially undervalued and pay considerably less than jobs in sectors dominated by men (Block et al., 2018). They also are also tied to insecure employment, large workloads as well as non-standard work schedules (for example, weekend work). This insecurity has been aggravated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with care and healthcare workers disproportionately affected by the virus (Mollard, 2021). 

If care work is to be re-evaluated, governments need to invest in public care infrastructure and improve legal regulations to support higher pay and better working conditions among care workers. Another aspect that should be considered is the encouragement of higher male participation in the care sector to change its cultural and societal perception. However, while government policies in the EU have made major strides in reducing horizontal segregation in the labour market by encouraging the education of female engineers or IT specialists, men’s underrepresentation in the care sector has so far been rarely addressed (Kaufman, 2020).

The Time is Now 

Disparities between women and men in unpaid care work are an essential factor in explaining reduced female labour force participation, lower levels of income among women and, to an extent, limitations to female career choices. The response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis provides a unique opportunity to create structural and sustainable policies to address these challenges. They should encourage sharing of unpaid domestic care duties between men and women, prioritise investment in care and social infrastructure and support higher pay and better working conditions in the care sector. These policies should be part of a whole-of-government approach to gender mainstreaming aimed at positively shaping the future of decent work and changing society’s relationship with and evaluation of ‘care’.


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