This International Women’s Day, Angie Barca, one of Development Pathways’ Social Policy Officers, explains how inclusive social security for women can better support women to access paid work while also benefiting children and the broader economy.
Care work, and the people who provide it, is an essential determinant of the wellbeing of families, communities, and nations, yet all around the world it is systematically undervalued and invisibilised.
Care work refers to the act of providing support in order to meet day-to-day life needs, including activities like cleaning and cooking, or caring for children, persons with disabilities, and older people. The bulk of care work is unpaid and carried out disproportionally by women. Time Use Surveys all around the world show extreme disparities in the distribution of housework and childcare responsibilities among men and women, with women performing between 2 to 10 times more unpaid care work than men. This is largely due to gender roles and expectations about domestic duties, which place the responsibility of raising children and taking care of the home primarily on women.
The unequal responsibility for unpaid care work is one of the main reasons why many women struggle to access paid employment outside the home. Worryingly, the global Female Labour Force Participation Rate has been slowly declining since the 1990s and remains at only 52.4 per cent, compared to the 80 per cent rate of male labour force participation. In the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, the gap between men and women is of 55 percentage points, meaning three times more men than women participate in the workforce.
The ILO identifies work-family balance, gender roles, and a lack of affordable care as the main challenges to closing the gender gap in employment. It is crucial that the design of policies that encourage female employment do not overlook the fact that the majority of women often take on significant workloads of unpaid care work on top of their paid jobs. Getting women to work must be done in a way that works for women.
What role can social security play in challenging the established norms and dynamics surrounding care?
Inclusive, multi-tiered approaches that provide universal coverage across the lifecycle can be used to ensure families are able to meet their basic needs. The introduction of extensive maternity benefits that enable women to take time off work while providing care for young children is essential to ensure flexibility in working arrangements. This should be coupled with shared parental leave that promotes the distribution of childcare between partners to avoid placing the responsibility solely or predominantly on women. A step forward would be non-transferable paternity leave, which is increasingly seen as best practice as it is significantly more effective at achieving high levels of take-up. In addition, high-coverage, inclusive child benefits present an opportunity to support families during the formative years of a child’s life, while alleviating the additional financial burden and providing the breathing space for greater choices when it comes to entering the work market. In order to have a positive impact on women, child benefits should be universal or near-universal, and should not disappear or reduce with work or income, as this can work to keep women out of good quality employment by conditioning eligibility.
However, direct income support, while a fundamental step, is not enough to address the care inequalities that affect women’s economic freedom. Affordable, accessible, flexible, and quality childcare is key for women to be able to make their own free choices about how to manage their time, realise their rights, and access opportunities that are economically empowering. Accessible childcare is also highly beneficial for children, correlating with reduced child poverty, decreased stunting rates, and higher educational achievement. Expanding childcare initiatives, in particular day care centres that can provide quality coverage to all children, including the most vulnerable, is a crucial move towards tackling the inequalities of the care economy, and it can help create paid, decent employment for people working in care. The experience of Quebec, which introduced an ambitious universal and low-fee childcare programme in 1997, has found that the boost in consumption and tax revenues from women entering the labour market as a result of the policy meant that the childcare services paid for themselves, increasing the province’s GDP by 1.7%.
Investing in the care economy through the expansion of social security has a multiplier or knock-on effect, creating jobs in other industries and increasing tax contributions by empowering women to join the workforce without the overbearing burden of childcare, and increasing household incomes and consumption. Of course, social security alone cannot achieve a societal shift towards recognising the value of unpaid care work, nor can it push informal care work into the domain of the formal economy. It can, however, provide indispensable support to unpaid care workers, empower women to enter the workforce by alleviating the burden of childcare, boost economic growth, and reduce inequalities.
This International Women’s Day, we at Development Pathways are calling for a Caring Economy, one where we prioritise caring for one another, and we recognise that care is something all of us need at different points in our lives. It is time to value care as a public good that deserves investment, and to urge states and institutions to take responsibility for it. Moving forward, let’s bring adequate, accessible, and affordable care to the forefront of the gender equality agenda.
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