by Isa Martinez
(Part 3 of 3)
If the world suddenly decided to compensate women for their care work, they’d make $10.9 trillion – assuming they’re paid minimum wage. The figure, computed by Oxfam and UN Women, exceeds the combined revenue of the Fortune Global 500’s 50 largest companies, including Apple, Amazon, and Walmart.
Care work remains completely sidelined when computing for GDP or any economic metric, despite humanity’s dependence on it. Not only do we refuse to pay those who prepare our meals, tend to our sick, and raise our children, we also force them to pay life-threatening costs.
Before COVID-19, women lost 12.5 billion hours to unpaid care work, and it’s only been getting worse. In other words, women used to provide three hours of unpaid work for every hour men did. The figure has only been increasing.
The world has wrested $10.9 trillion in wages from women this year, and it’s only the beginning. Women who choose to maintain the “social safety net” of care work that keeps humanity afloat must do so at the cost of any career.
When the world falls sick and hungry, women are the first to make sacrifices. Between February and December of 2020, mothers’ employment rates fell 7%, with their labor-force participation rate falling 4%, according to The Economist.
Undervalued in the workforce and unpaid outside it, women are falling into what economists call the “female recession.” COVID-19 may be the final blow to our caretakers, healthcare personnel, mothers, and frontliners. Defeating the virus’ spread alone cannot guarantee our survival: we must also protect women, if not for anything else but their essential role in preserving humanity.
"This is not just a question of rights, it's also a question of what makes economic sense," according to U.N. Women’s Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. According to Bahtia, any progress feminism has made that has taken 25 years could be destroyed in a year, with the burden of unpaid care work posing a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes.”
If the whole world wants to ensure its own survival, then the whole world must act on women’s behalf. Each sector demographic has its role in averting a gendered global collapse.
Policy approaches focus on freeing up women to join the workforce in addition to providing care work, and providing just compensation for the care work already being done. Men, who take up most positions of power, must begin recognizing care work as “real” work that deserves compensations and protections already awarded to other jobs. Both individuals and institutions must begin by acknowledging the crucial role women play in upholding humanity is both real and unpaid. Only then can we begin creating systems to ensure our collective survival.
There is nothing in human biology dictating that woman must take up care work, nor that it is all they are fit for. By correcting the societal factors forcing women to choose between work and home, care burdens could be eased, opening up a vast window for global economic gains.
In the immediate term, governments and businesses must implement and fund initiatives that will keep women in the workforce, including family leaves and childcare systems.
Women trapped in their homes with abusers must be protected, not only because it is their human right, but also because doing so will allow them to continue serving in the workforce and on the front lines.
Another immediate solution to the crisis includes the funding of research into gendered health impacts, as it has already been proven that COVID-19 disproportionately wreaks havoc on women.
Financial institutions must also take a key role by devoting resources to mitigate the virus’ economic impact on households. Parties including employers, governments, and similar bodies must support women by paying out an adequate standard of living, and adjust grants, transfers, and incentives schemes to account for women who have lost their income or retired due to COVID-19 and the increased responsibilities it forced upon them.
Women remaining in the workforce must receive flexible hours and adequate equipment to safely perform their duties, whether from home or from office.
Short-term solutions must focus on protecting the women and girls we already have, and recognizing the invisible work that allows humanity to survive amidst the pandemic.
Looking forward, medium- and long-term solutions must address the systemic flaws that were brutally exposed by the outbreak, and rebuild economies and societies to recognize centuries’ worth of care work. These include investments in safety equipment and systems, fare wages and favorable work conditions. This includes equal access to healthcare for all occupations, including caregivers and health center workers.
Institutions must ensure that women in poverty are vaccinated and protected, and that unpaid caregivers receive proper compensation and social protections.
The approach proposed by U.N. Women asks governments “to recognize; reduce, redistribute, and represent unpaid and under paid care work in Asia.” The proposal calls on countries to establish a “Regional Action Group” that can develop policy proposals focused towards compensating unpaid labor.
Monetizing out-of-market jobs to make economic gains and secure regulation is a long-standing strategy. If governments apply it to women’s unpaid care labor by creating hundreds of millions of care work opportunities and building a “care economy,” they stand to secure at least $10.9 trillion per year.
Recognizing care work as a profession and investing in the proper infrastructure can allow a care economy to arise and thrive. Investments in training, education, certification will empower women to carve out a living from the skills they currently provide for free.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the world must work together to free women from the burden forced upon them.
Women are not “naturally” designed to take on more work. Women are not “inherently” better parents, teachers, caregivers, or homemakers. Educating men through campaigns, educational systems, and similar initiatives could eliminate the need for many support initiatives and investments designed to help women continue fighting the care work battle alone.
If the world decides to compensate women for the work they’ve been doing, we stand to raise at least $10.9 trillion each year. If we keep refusing to bring women’s invisible labor to the light, we must make our next choice: face a global collapse, or find someone else who can feed us, clothe us, nurse us to health, and raise our children, all while working indispensable frontline jobs during crises.