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Social Policy and Development Programme Paper 19: The Adult Worker Model Family, Gender Equality and Care: The Search for New Policy Principles, and the Possibilities and Problems of a Capabilities Approach

18 May 2005

  • Authors: Susy Giullari, Jane Lewis


Policy makers in most Western welfare states are moving away from a set of assumptions about the contributions that men and women make to families based on the notion of a “male breadwinner model family”, toward a new set of assumptions, based on an “adult worker model family”. The traditional male breadwinner model assumed that men would take primary responsibility for earning and women for caring. It did therefore make provision for care work, albeit at the price of women’s economic dependence on men. How care work is to be accommodated in the new model—in which all adults, whether male or female, parents or not, are assumed to enter full-time work—is a major issue.

The authors begin by examining this shift in policy assumptions at the level of the European Union. Policy makers are increasingly assuming that the work of care will move to the formal, paid sector, in line with the more general shift in emphasis from “passive” to “active” welfare and the wish to promote women’s labour market participation. But policy makers’ assumptions are outrunning the pace of social change in many Western countries; for the most part, women are far from having achieved economic autonomy.

The authors consider the possibilities offered by the capabilities approach to address these issues. In their view, this offers a promising basis on which to address the issue of care—not least because gender equality is of central concern to both Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, who have played the leading part in developing the approach. The key advantage of using the capabilities approach to address the problem of gender equality in relation to paid work and care is that it provides a universal equality model rooted in the recognition of human diversity.

The authors maintain that care must be conceptualized as both a “legitimate” choice, which the capabilities approach helps to do, and as a necessary human activity, which in turn provides the basis for arguing that it must be shared between men and women. However, the authors recognize that the task of devising social policies that promote real choice for men and for women in respect of paid and unpaid work poses huge difficulties. But from the point of view of human flourishing and welfare, it is impossible to choose not to care or not to work.

At the time of writing in 2003, Susy Giullari was British Academy Fellow and Jane Lewis was Barnett Professor of Social Policy, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

Order SPDPP 19 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).