OECD reported in their 2014 report that women engage with two to ten times more unpaid care work than men on average. This care work includes childcare, care for the elderly or disabled, or being in the service of others. For many women, employment that takes care into consideration has been non-existent, and across many sectors, it still is.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the hospitality and retail industry in the UK (which is primarily represented by women due to its flexible hours) has forced many women out of jobs. Many have become full time carers and educators for their children and any elderly relatives, neighbours or friends who have needed more assistance. Many women who are working from home are now having to simultaneously be working and caring for their children or others, including the home life, and though their hours are more flexible, their day to day home life does not allow for a reasonable end to their ‘workday’. Yet, they are only getting paid for up to half of their ‘work’. The move to a mostly digital workplace interaction has meant that many women are now playing dual roles, all day, every day. Women make up 70 percent of global unpaid care workers, and as men are statistically occupying more senior/manager positions, women are also now more easily replaceable or cut when companies come under financial stress.

The end goal for the ethically minded investor should not be to respond to unpaid care work to elevate women’s economic role in society, but to ensure care work is a shared, valued, equal and equitable activity that both benefits those involved and can be benefited from. Focusing on only the economic role of social care creates further competition that exploits women at the bottom of the hierarchy, namely the poor, non-white or disabled, for whom such care is not economically accessible. Therefore, commodifying care would deepen these inequalities. Instead, we need to explore means to intrinsically value care as a society. We cannot do that unless we layer and intersect all the different systems which contribute to this injustice, including gender, race, class, geography, culture and governance. We must recognise that it is an ongoing battle that has a stake in other battles. Investment in accessible childcare for women to be able to climb the corporate ladder on more equal grounding with her male counterparts is an achievement, but it does nothing for the average woman of colour who spends 4 hours of her day travelling to her insecure job with little employment protection, only to come home and provide care for her children and elderly relatives because there has not been investment in her local community’s job market, quality education, or local health care.

It will be interesting to track how unpaid care work connects with COVID-19 mortality rates. Current data suggests that men are more likely to die from the virus, however there is a lack of disaggregated data to help understand how it is affecting women in the context of their employment. Since women are largely acting as care workers, both employed and unemployed, and make up a large amount of frontline and health care staff, it would be reasonable to question whether women are dying/contracting the virus in higher numbers due to exposure despite men being more likely to die from the virus itself. This issue exposes further systematic gender injustices, and shines additional light on how the woman of colour will be even further impacted. Women make up a high percentage of care workers in the UK with 89.3 percent of nursing and 80 percent of all UK jobs in adult social care done by women, the number rising to 95 percent within direct care. If we consider outside of the UK, in historically over exploited countries that have failing health care systems, women are at the frontline of caring for those affected by the virus (on top of any other endemics they may currently be battling too), as well as poverty, famine, poor living conditions and other chronic illnesses. Not only is unpaid care work a healthcare issue, it is a gender, class and race issue. We also know from previous crises that unpaid care work women and girls are required to undertake in response means that they are less likely to return to education, less likely to enter ‘high skilled’ work or the job market outside of their caregiving responsibilities, and remain at continued risk of undervalued positions in society, continued domestic and sexual violence, and less opportunities to socially mobilise.

How can this be addressed?

Unpaid care work is a difficult issue to address. It is not simply a matter of making it paid, since adding the element of competition to a social sector that many women are having to engage with anyway would begin to exploit those who do not get employed, and the issue would very quickly turn into a class one. Many women have no choice but to work in care due to cultural or societal reasons, and with care work being considered ‘low skilled’, and additional bias against women who have large employment gaps, unpaid care also creates challenges for women looking to re-enter the job market. This is especially true currently for women of colour and migrant workers who are forced into care work that is often low paid due to systemic discrimination, and often will have to rely on unreliable public transport, are not awarded sick leave and required to work long and late hours, which risk their safety by forcing them into public at night.

Investing in making the workplace environment and its policies more women/family friendly would be one step forward in the western word. For example, it is often the case that those in senior level positions can file expenses for food, travel, and even forms of entertainment, as well as office furniture and other apparent necessities on a company budget. However, family and personal expenses such as period products, child care, cars that are large enough to fit a child’s seat, or additional annual leave are not considered essential expenses when asking women in senior positions to engage in long hours, and then go home and engage with further unpaid care work with no additional provision. For many women, the workday only ends when everyone is asleep. And for new mothers, not even then.

One major argument against unpaid care work is that it is not accounted for within a country’s GDP, however, it is also arguable that including this would only reflect how a country is exploiting women that contribute to the economy with nothing in return, further decreasing their wellbeing, happiness and living standards . Unpaid care work also needs to be a reflexive measurement within employment rates when we question why women are in insecure work, not in senior positions, or even in employment. The UK’s universal credit and benefits system is often criticised for being inadequate, since many families will find themselves better off in the system than in employment because of the inaccessibility and expensiveness of childcare.

This conversation cannot be viewed exclusively through an economic lens, however. The above only covers the generalised experience of western women, particularly in the UK and the U.S. Unpaid care work, however, is a global issue. It cuts across environmental work, with the role of women and their ‘roles’ in ecological protection, with protecting indigenous cultures and knowledges, and protection of biodiversity being unvalued and unrecognised. Women make up a largely ignored part of this work, whether as educators or by maintaining farm life, even if they are not the ones trading and selling. Part of the solution is to recognise the economic impact of women’s unpaid care work in conjunction with the global and systemic role, impact and treatment of women. But we must not reduce this work to its economic impact, and instead balance financial investment into current systems that can make women’s employment more accessible, safer and more productive, and actively challenge the systems that built and upholds this issue in the first place, to allow care work to be more equally and equitably shared, and supported.

Further resources and reading: