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The Persistence of Our Gendered Care Deficit

Photo: Shutterstock / Astroette

These days, it’s impossible to talk about the future of work without reflexively meandering to the same question: Will robots take our jobs? While that’s not an unfounded concern, it plasters over another key issue: Who will care for us in the future?

We can trace this impending challenge to two key developments. The first, that populations the world over are aging. By 2030, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population—some 150 million people—will be either over the age of 65 or under the age of 15. The second, that the number of women entering the workforce will continue to grow. This latter trend is hardly a bad thing. A recent joint effort by my organization (the International Labour Organization) and Gallup shows that, globally, 70 percent of women—regardless of their labor-market status—state that they’d prefer to have a paid job. But given that women have traditionally been expected to perform unpaid caregiving for children and dependent adults, a more prudent question for policymakers contemplating the future of work is one that investigates who will take care of these two very different groups.

Of course, new health-related technologies can provide some assistance, but we’ll still need everyday personal and household care for children and the elderly. This has been, and is expected to remain, a “human” job. But with more able-bodied adults in the workforce, there are fewer family members available to provide this care work. To fill the gaps, an increasing number of the elderly are living on their own, and more families are turning to public or private care services, including work provided by domestic workers. Indeed, home-health and personal care workers are among the fastest-growing fields. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, home-care occupations are projected to add more jobs than any other single occupation, with an additional 633,100 new jobs expected to be created by 2024.  

But here’s the problem: Care work is rarely valued, and typically invisible. Care professions have a history of insufficient regulation and are often subject to poor working conditions in terms of pay and excessive hours of work. And given its invisible nature, these workers typically lack the basic protections, like sick leave, that are afforded to other sorts of workers. The care economy, however, helps to make up the social backbone that each of us, at one point or another in our lives, relies on. How, then, do we approach this yawning care deficit?

For one, we ought to redefine work. In 2013, ILO’s 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians adopted a more comprehensive definition of “work.” It included a new classification of forms of work, recognizing unpaid trainee work, volunteer work, own-use provision of goods (household production of goods), and own-use provision of services (services for the household or family, including unpaid care work). By radically expanding what we think of as work to include all people working—and all hours worked, regardless of whether those hours were compensated—we can make visible the outsized unpaid care work women have long done.

But there’s a related, and more fundamental, reason why caregiving work remains so persistently undervalued. Women, especially those from migrant and minority communities, often bear the brunt of unpaid care work. In many ways, these women are subsidizing public care at the cost of their employment, time, and welfare. Yet their labor frequently gets dismissed as just “women’s work.” Until only recently, this sort of discrimination was also rooted in the way organizations gathered—or rather, didn’t gather—data on unpaid care work and household activities; data often glossed over the weighty contributions women make in the household and only reinforced gender stereotypes about unpaid care work. It’s exactly this kind of discrimination that leaves this sort of unpaid care work underpaid and underrated, and that keeps the women who perform it from achieving full economic empowerment.

Women, too, are getting pressure from both sides. In ILO’s recent report on women in the international labor market, we shine a light on the pervasive social perception that women shouldn’t engage in paid work—or at least shouldn’t do so at the risk of foregoing household responsibilities—and the continued abuse, harassment, and discrimination that hold women back in the labor market. All of this, despite women’s clear preference for paid, decent work.

Looking ahead, overcoming this kind of gender discrimination and valuing the work women do—paid and unpaid—will be inextricably linked to addressing our increasing care deficit. In order to be effective, policy responses need to address the root causes of gender segregation and diversify employment opportunities for women and men. Only then can the restraints on women’s roles in the workplace be torn loose.

For one, it’s crucial that we make care work decent. This starts by implementing minimum wages and social protections for all, especially care workers. This helps to ensure that everyone receives equal pay for work of equal value.

We must also combat discrimination both within and outside of the workplace. Challenging social norms and placing greater value on skills related to care provision will help to break down some of these gender stereotypes. It’s a process that needs to begin in childhood through education and outreach, such as ensuring equal access to educational opportunities.

There’s also a need for legislation that combats gender-based discrimination. Laws alone, of course, won’t be enough to eliminate discrimination, violence, and harassment in the professional world. Other measures, like dissuasive sanctions, specialized equality bodies, and public awareness campaigns, are key complements to any effort to change attitudes and social norms.

We’re making progress, in countries rich and poor. For instance, Canada just made a historic commitment for an inclusive, high-quality, and accessible care framework in the country’s most recent budget, which will help to ensure that even vulnerable communities have equal access to care. And in Rwanda, women now benefit from three months of paid maternity leave—more time off than many more developed countries offer.

These are important steps forward, but progress across the globe is too slow. The care deficit is present and growing. As we look forward to 2030, one of the most pressing issues facing our societies will be our capacity to care for one another. Our success will depend on our ability to make this work visible and decent. Are we up to the challenge?


Steven Tobin is a senior economist at the International Labour Organization.