The way we approach care work is undeniably gendered, but considering this in any detail betrays an incredible androcentrism. It’s not considered ‘work’ because men have defined what constitutes ‘work’, and traditionally men haven’t done much caring. There is a circular (il)logic at play: we don’t value care because we assume women should be doing it, and because women do it, we don’t value it.
It seems remarkable that care work is considered to be a ‘low-skilled’ job, even by parents I spoke to when exploring this issue. In one conversation I had, someone compared care work to shelf-stacking. That the work - and the pay - is considered commensurate is a damning indictment of the remarkable lack of recognition we offer the people entrusted to look after the future generation. If someone is an incompetent shelf-stacker, they may put baked-beans tins where the cat-food tins should be. If someone is an incompetent care-worker, children suffer.
Investment in care is symptomatic of this disregard for care work. If we must assign merit through wages, then it is absurd that childcare workers are paid so poorly.
What are the other options?
There are alternatives to this approach. In the UK, despite the extremely low pay childcare workers receive, our analysis shows that London parents spend seven times more on childcare than parents in Stockholm do. This is because the UK invests less than half (as a proportion of GDP) of what Sweden does in childcare.
The Nordic countries demonstrate what’s possible, but France and the Netherlands also show how little the UK offers. Even Germany (where the adage for women, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” resulted in previously low investment) has made significant steps to address childcare provision in recent years. But the reasons behind this are economic - low birth-rates, and a sense that the old system was detrimental to growth. It is an instrumentalist approach to improving childcare.
Attitudes towards childcare reflect attitudes towards gender equity: is it an intrinsic good, or a means to (economic) ends? These approaches roughly map to two of Nancy Fraser’s approaches to caregiving, the Universal Breadwinner and the Universal Caregiver models.
The Universal Breadwinner model requires a commodification of care. Care becomes a service, one that allows parents to get back into the labour market, to become ‘productive citizens’. This approach may improve some indicators of gender equality, but will likely further burden some women, especially women of colour who take on a disproportionate amount of care work. It doesn’t address the value of care, and it’s also a slow way of achieving change. The Stanford Centre on Poverty and Inequality recently showed that gender equality has stalled in the US, which one of the authors attributes in part to biases about what constitutes ‘women’s work’.
To erode assumptions about ‘women’s work’, we need something more ambitious than low-cost childcare and better wages for childcare workers. The Universal Caregiver model proposes a revision of our approach to ‘work’, designing a state that supports people of any gender to undertake both care and paid work.
If we really want to erode gender inequalities in child-rearing, we need holistic changes that support everyone. This could include practical measures, such as enforced parental leave, but also efforts to challenge restrictive social norms, such as a rethink of what we consider as ‘labour’.
In doing so, we recognise the value of care. It is not solely a woman’s responsibility to raise children, but a society’s.
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.