Women and care work: we're stuck in a revolving door


Saida Ali

2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

A few months ago, American feminist author Jessica Valenti’s Medium.com article “The ‘Woke’ men who still want housewives” struck a chord with me and tens of thousands of other people around the world. Focusing on the “big difference between believing in [gender] equality and being willing to live it — especially for men”, she highlights the gap between stated political beliefs and practices in private lives. Citing a survey that drew on four decades of data, Valenti notes that 25% of Americans said that women and men should be equal in the public sphere – while at the same time believing that “women should still do the majority of domestic work and childcare”.

This yawning gap between words and deeds when it comes to who takes care of care work is not unique to the US. Recent research focusing on the global South shows that women in the developing world, and especially mothers, devote more time to these tasks than men; they work longer hours overall than men; and when mothers enter paid employment, the hours they spend on unpaid work do not shrink. In fact, the opposite occurs.

As family structures and gender relations have shifted over time, there have been changes in women’s experiences of unpaid care work exacerbated by the playing-out of complexities linked to the global migration and global integration of labour. When women from the global South travel to richer countries to take up domestic and other caring responsibilities, gender inequalities travel along with them through a kind of global revolving door. The flow of labour from the global South into the global North gets men in richer countries off the hook, as what might otherwise have been unpaid care work in their households is transferred to the labour of migrant women (for a fee). Meanwhile, the global South women who care for these men’s children and clean their houses stay trapped in a system that reproduces gender, racial and class disparities as they move from one site of inequality to another. 

The focus on women’s unpaid care work in research carried out in developing countries reflects the fact that it accounts for most of women’s labour time. It is, however, only one aspect of the broader care economy, which also includes paid care labour. For an excellent overview of recent research on care work, I recommend the insights contained in “Developing care: recent research on the care economy and economic development”, a report carried out for the International Development Research Centre that focuses on projects and policies in global South countries including Colombia, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mexico, Nepal, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, the Philippines, Uganda, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.  

Every day around the world, according to a 2018 report by the International Labour Organisation, 16.4 billion hours are spent in unpaid care work. This is equivalent to 2 billion people working 8 hours a day, for free. If this work were paid according to the minimum wage, it would represent 9% of global GDP, as a recent OECD Development policy paper shows, and as high as 33% of GDP in China, 23% in Argentina, France and New Zealand, and 14% in South Africa and Canada. Clearly, this has implications for gender equality within households, given the disparity in the way such duties are divided between women and men. It also has an impact on gender inequalities in paid work outside the caring economy. More broadly still, it has implications for women’s labour force participation, and their involvement in civil society as a whole.

Wherever you are, housework and other unpaid care work can be routine and monotonous, and to those who do it day in and day out, it often seems endless. The contradictions in women’s work, their agency and their place in society – and the persistent sexist beliefs about caring and nurturing being inherently female abilities that accompany such contradictions – are not unique to one part of the globe. No matter where in the world women get stuck in the revolving door of care work, these contradictions are part and parcel of what Professor Naila Kabeer calls the “endless variety” and “monotonous similarity” of patriarchal constraints. As research by scholars Gaëlle Ferrant and Annelise Thim has shown, regardless of a woman’s level of education, and regardless of the level of economic development of the country she is in, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work remains stubbornly slow in coming. While efforts by feminist economists and activists who have pushed for recognition, reduction and redistribution of care work have brought some movement toward greater gender equity, we can also point to situations where there has been no shift at all.

Of course, there are reasons for hope. Around the world, we have seen positive initiatives being put into place, from improving infrastructure to ensure access to water, sanitation, roads and healthcare, to making investments in family care services, maternity and paternity leave policies and flexible work arrangements. However, these policies will fail to achieve their full potential if there is no personal transformation on the part of men, and changes in the spaces where patriarchal notions persist.

From the vantage point of 2019, you may find yourself thinking that more and more men must be taking up a fairer share of the domestic and care work that goes on around them. But while as societies we have no shortage of laudable ambitions and well-crafted policies, as individuals we tend to choose the revolving door as a quick fix when it comes to personal commitments to reducing gender inequalities in our daily lives. Addressing the norms that reproduce the unequal exchange at the core of both paid and unpaid care work is as critical as addressing the multiple and intersecting forms of inequalities and structural barriers that push women to the periphery. If measures are to be transformative, they need to go beyond merely focusing on women’s greater participation in traditionally male activities and professions, to focusing on men’s participation in and support for family life and care.

“Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment: Time Use Data and Gender Inequality”, an OECD policy paper published just a few months ago, is one of my favourite recent reports on what care work inequalities really look like, minute by minute and day by day. It presents valuable analyses of time-use data and unpaid care work from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and South Africa, set in comparison with OECD countries, and focuses valuable attention on often-overlooked elements of the gender gap. It is a reminder that we are yet to really address the way gender inequalities are normalized in the realm of care, and lead to the further reproduction of other social and economic inequalities experienced by women.

One of the paper’s key findings is just how early in life the gender gap in unpaid care work begins. In Peru, it notes, “ten-year-old girls spend on average 44 minutes in unpaid care work compared to 24 minutes for boys of the same age”; 15-year-old girls “spend on average around two hours, while boys of the same age spend a little over one hour.” That gap keeps widening, and the seemingly endless list of domestic work and caring responsibilities keeps expanding, as girls become women, wives and mothers. In contrast, marriage and the arrival of children actually has the opposite effect for men, with husbands typically spending less time on unpaid care work and routine housework than bachelors.

It is possible to look back at past struggles, especially by feminist movements, and appreciate the significance of – and the hard work that has gone into – the positive policy shifts we have seen. Feminist economists and feminist activists both inside and outside of institutions have been at the forefront of pushing for the recognition of unpaid care work. Scholars such as Professor Nancy Folbre and Dr Marilyn Waring can attest to tireless efforts to shift the long, stubborn resistance by mainstream (and predominantly male) economists and statisticians to measuring and scrutinising the distribution of unpaid care time.

One of the early noteworthy achievements in this field was a resolution on unpaid care work and gender inequality passed during the 1985 Nairobi UN World Conference on Women. A decade later, this resolution was built upon at the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in 1995, which led to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which noted that “the care of children, the sick and the elderly is a responsibility that falls disproportionately on women, owing to lack of equality and the unbalanced distribution of remunerated and unremunerated work between women and men”. It called for “methods ... for assessing the value, in quantitative terms, of unremunerated work that is outside national accounts, such as caring for dependents and preparing food, for possible reflection in satellite or other official accounts ... with a view to recognizing the economic contribution of women and making visible the unequal distribution of remunerated and unremunerated work between women and men...” as well as “to examine the relationship of women’s unremunerated work to incidence of vulnerability to poverty”.

Twenty years later at yet another United Nations-initiated global process, Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals set out the intention to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. It includes reducing the burden of unpaid work on women as an indicator, with SDG 5.4 calling for “recognizing and valuing unpaid work” and 5.4.1 pointing to the need for measurement of “proportion of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work, by sex, age and location”.

With the twenty-fifth anniversary and review process of the Beijing Platform for Action fast approaching in 2020, many of us will be looking to see how policies around the world since 1995 have addressed aspects of gender equality that relate to the recognition of unpaid care work, and how these fit with the commitments linked to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Generation after generation, society depends on social reproduction. While caring roles will always be needed, they need not be shouldered by women disproportionately. We can do something to stop reproducing the inequalities that come with social reproduction, or we can keep taking ten steps forward on gender equality and twenty steps back.

We know that however well-crafted, and however well supported by research, “woke” policies will never be enough if individuals fail to wake up to the need for change. The real transformation will happen when men take seriously the issue of how paid and unpaid care work is divided and see change as something that will have an impact on their own well-being as well as women’s. When it comes to who does the caring and the housework, it’s time for us to call out sexism for what it is, and for all of us to step away from the revolving door.


Saida Ali is an Atlantic Senior Fellow for Social and Economic Equity and a 2007 alumna of the Archbishop Tutu Fellowship at the African Leadership Institute. She is an independent consultant on gender equality and an international policy analyst. Her current research interest is on the global economies of care and migration, and how gender, race and class intersect to reproduce and justify various dimensions of inequalities. She is a thought leader and an expert on programming to address violence against women and girls. She tweets at @SaidaAaliyah.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo: Billie Grace Ward CC BY 2.0