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Unequal worlds of gender and care: The journey of feminist ideas into the policy realm

12 Jan 2011



It does not take fancy econometric models to show that the time and effort that people put into taking care of others constitutes a key input into the well-being of not only children and frail elderly persons, but also able-bodied adults. But it has taken a lot of work by feminist writers and activists to expose the taken-for-granted unpaid caring and domestic work that women do in the home.

In Europe these calls began to be taken more seriously as patterns of social change brought more women into the paid workforce, as family and household arrangements diverged from the normative model (of heterosexual married couple with children), and in some contexts, as concerns grew about falling fertility rates.

The response, however, was far from automatic. Shifting policy away from the retrenchment/austerity mindset of the 1980s to one that was responsive to changing social and economic realities—perhaps even transformative—required new ideas that went beyond the neoliberal approach. But by the mid-1990s spaces were opening up for new thinking. For some analysts this meant recalibrating the modern welfare state away from the historical preoccupation with the risks of old age (pensions) and unemployment visited upon the male breadwinner worker and his family, to the “new social risks” associated with post-industrial societies. Gender has figured as a major theme in this rethinking. Assisting families and women to reconcile their work and family responsibilities is seen as the surest way of combating poverty and its intergenerational transmission while also allowing couples to have the number of children they desire.

Central to this post-neoliberal perspective is the notion of the state as an investor. The new perspective has also implied a different notion of time to that found in the postwar welfare state: while the postwar welfare state focused on redistribution and equality in the here-and-now, the social investment state emphasizes “equality of opportunities” more than resources. Together these ideas have lent themselves to a particular focus on children and their “human capital”. More problematically though, as feminists like Jane Jenson and Maxine Molyneux have persuasively argued, this child-centred policy focus has effectively sidelined the equality claims of adult women. Their needs and interests have been “lost in translation”, as Jane Jenson recently put it.

Yet if the social investment approach has, in the European context, sought to push women into the labour market under the theme of “employability”, elsewhere, especially in Latin America, critics contend that it has naturalized motherhood and the heterosexual nuclear family, and reinforced the maternalist thrust in social policy, rather than providing sustainable strategies for women’s economic security by making it easier for them to seek paid work or engage in job training.

Even where early education and childcare services have been expanded, a number of concerns remain. The first set of concerns relates to the segmented nature of such programmes. The fact that services are provided by a mix of public, private and “community” providers (the latter very often meaning less professionalized and cheaper services, with lower staff/child ratios and fewer facilities and materials), targeted to different social groups, complicates the task of equalizing the quality of services/benefits while creating the danger of parallel and unequal provision for different groups. It is difficult to talk about “equality of opportunity” when both children and their family carers face such different care options.

The second issue is about the employment conditions that are being created, especially for women in these and many other care-related social programmes. The first obvious point to make is that de-familialization of care (shifting care out of the family) and its commodification have not changed the fact that it is still predominantly women who do this kind of work (even in Sweden!). Moreover, we know from a wide range of research on both developed and developing countries that care work often carries a pay penalty in terms of wages and salaries regardless of the level of skill and education content of the work. What is particularly problematic is that the recent expansion of care-related social programmes—in the area of early childhood education and care, or the home-based care programmes that have mushroomed in sub-Saharan Africa in response to the care demands associated with HIV and AIDS—have come to rely heavily on “voluntary” or “community” work, very often a shorthand for unpaid or underpaid work predominantly performed by women.

Finally, it is not clear that these programmes focused on children can break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage (including gender disadvantage), when the inequalities and deprivation experienced by the current generation, the mothers and fathers, are not being tackled.

There needs to be much more problematization of the fact that inequalities of income and wealth, and discriminatory practices, are being constantly reproduced through the broader workings of the liberalized capitalist economy—be it through health and education systems more broadly, or indeed the production and labour market regimes that operate beyond the regulatory reach of the state.

Extracted from the presentation by Shahra Razavi, UNRISD Research Coordinator, at the International Seminar on Care Policies, Gender and Welfare, organized by IDES, UNFPA and UNICEF, 14-15 October 2010, Buenos Aires.