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It’s time to tackle gender inequality in unpaid care work

(Alamy)

4 min read

Juggling a career with unpaid care work is an enormous challenge that women face everywhere.

Across the globe, women are replying to business emails while nursing the baby, on the phone to suppliers while taking relatives to hospital appointments, developing marketing strategies while doing the laundry, and often having to actually take their children to work with them. This unpaid care work is disproportionately carried out by women and girls and it has a huge impact on their rights and opportunities.

Unpaid care work remains invisible and continues to fall disproportionately on women

At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, this is something that we hear all too often from 230,000 women entrepreneurs we have worked with in low and middle income countries. One of these women, Odunayo Anyibuofu, the founder of a clothing company in Nigeria, recently told us: “The challenge as a woman in this business is the family care. I need to take care of my girls. I home school them because of finance. And right now, I am the only one doing everything.”

A lack of affordable, quality, and accessible care and unequal, unpaid care work division are key barriers to business for women around the world – and here in the United Kingdom too. We have some of the highest childcare costs in the world, and much policy that relates to care – for example to do with parental leave – is built around outdated views that consider men’s place as being at work and women’s in the home.

One of the major factors fuelling unequal distribution of unpaid care is gender stereotypes and social norms. These affect the views and values relating to care work and contribute to the gendered division of care at the household, community and global level. Our own research from 2021 on these stereotypes found that almost half (49 per cent) of women entrepreneurs who took part reported that family members or friends have told them to focus more on family or children.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further entrenched these stereotypes but has been a stark reminder of how our day to day lives are made possible by the unpaid care work of women and girls. Yet, women everywhere are still dealing with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and now a cost of living crisis too. The foundation has just conducted new research, surveying over 700 women entrepreneurs across nearly 80 countries. Nearly half of these women (49 per cent) told us that their unpaid care work had increased since the beginning of the pandemic, with 41 per cent now carrying out four or more hours of unpaid care a day. Worryingly, almost one in five (19 per cent) say that this has undermined the performance or limited the growth of their business.

Against this backdrop, it is now more vital than ever to prioritise creating a more supportive, equitable care economy and in doing so, support economic equality and prosperity. It is my view that care is a right and is crucial for women’s economic participation. Decision makers should build caring economies by addressing the 5 Rs of care – recognition, reduction, redistribution, representation and reward for care work. This requires investment in high-quality care and accessible social services. It requires more and better rewarded care jobs. And overturning gender-discriminatory norms and gender stereotypes that fuel unequal division of care work in societies and communities also has a crucial part to play. 

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is currently working with CARE International UK, with funding from the Ares Charitable Foundation, to tackle inequity in unpaid care work to accelerate women’s economic justice. Through evidence building and storytelling, we identify solutions on how to build caring economies which can foster women’s opportunities and economic justice.

Together, we are raising awareness of the importance of prioritising and investing in building caring economies and women’s economic justice. We are hoping to see firm commitments made in this regard in the upcoming Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) Women and Girls Strategy.

Care and domestic work are the backbones of our societies – the foundations upon which our economies are completely reliant. Research from Oxfam shows unpaid care adds $10.8tn to the global economy each year, equivalent to 9 per cent of global GDP. Yet unpaid care work remains invisible and continues to fall disproportionately on women. This is first and foremost a critical matter of gender justice that requires urgent attention, but unlocking the great potential of women entrepreneurs around the world is also a huge economic imperative, or it risks becoming an enormous lost opportunity.

It is no exaggeration to say that women entrepreneurs have the power to change the world. It is high time for decision makers to create caring economies by tackling the unequal division of unpaid care work and better support women’s economic opportunities and entrepreneurship.

 

Cherie Blair, barrister and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

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