Changing the notion that care is ‘women’s work’

Women provide the vast majority of care — paid or unpaid — therefore, investment in care is key for women’s equality, says Director of the National Women’s Council (NWC) ORLA O’CONNOR
Changing the notion that care is ‘women’s work’

THE Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the importance of care to a functioning economy and society and the value of giving and receiving care to our wellbeing. At some point in all our lives we will give and receive care.

The reality is that it is women who are providing the vast majority of care whether it is paid or unpaid. This has a significant impact on women’s lives and on the decisions that women can take in their lives. It is one of the reasons for gender inequality in our society.

Data published by the CSO indicates that gendered patterns of care were replicated during Covid- 19. More women cared for family or friends and women were more likely to report difficulty working from home because of family responsibilities.

The National Women’s Council’s Caring during Covid online survey mirrors these findings and highlights its impact on women. 71.5% of women surveyed were looking after children, adults, or both in their own home. 

85% said their caring responsibilities had increased during lockdown. 

Many women living with another adult reported caring was not shared equally in their household, with the ‘lion’s share’ falling to them. 55% of respondents said they had less time for their mental health.

How can we change the societal expectations and deeply engrained norms that tell us care is ‘women’s work’? This topic was recently discussed by the citizens at the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality that continues to take place remotely.

Orla O’Connor, Director of NWCI. Picture: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE
Orla O’Connor, Director of NWCI. Picture: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE

In its presentation to the Citizens Assembly, the National Women’s Council highlighted the need for significant and sustained State investment into care as a key way to promote women’s equality.

For decades we have seen a minimum level of State involvement and State support for care. As a result, it has been left to women within families to provide care or to the private market to provide care often at a high cost with a very undervalued and underpaid workforce. 

Six in ten of early years workers are paid below the minimum wage.

Domestic and personal care workers are often reliant on very precarious contracts and are vulnerable to exploitation. The majority of the workers are migrant women.

There are well documented deficits in our provision of Early Years care and out of school care, with costs amongst the highest in the EU. Affordability impacts most acutely on lone parents, with 60% unable to afford childcare services.

However, we also need to see investment into a comprehensive care infrastructure across the lifecycle. The absence of a State response to supporting disabled and older people to live autonomous lives, leaves family carers, predominantly women, to provide care. It also forces disabled and older people into a position of dependence on family members.

Investment in public models of care, rather than dependence on the market to provide services, is crucial. 

In countries with public childcare, services are more affordable, accessible and of higher quality. A public model is key to delivering better pay and conditions for workers. Across Europe, the most important factor in lowering the pay and conditions of care workers is the extent to which care is marketized. Collective bargaining has an important role to play in improving terms and conditions in the sector.

We also need to see more care friendly workplaces where workers are supported to combine work and care. This includes reduced working hours for all and policies on flexible working but also statutory parental leave policies that enable greater sharing of care in families.

While legislation is important, the success of an approach depends on the interplay of multiple factors.

Uptake of Paternity and Parents Leave by men, for example, is low and one reason for this is the low rate of payment. Legislation to increase the duration of both is needed but so too is an increase in the payments for all family leave payments.

Finally, we need to look at how our Constitution can enshrine the positive value of care. Article 41.2 which still refers to a woman’s ‘life in the home’ is sexist and discriminatory. The Article does not reflect the diversity of experiences that women have or recognise the work which men currently do as. It includes a definition of family which does not reflect the diversity of families in Ireland today.

This is why the National Women’s Council is recommending an amendment to Article 41.2 that clearly recognises the value of care in an inclusive and gender-neutral way.

Let’s remember that while the issue of care is complex, there are clear solutions. These solutions require political leadership and ambitious decisions during this crisis and in the long term.

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