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The labour of care

Written by Romely Start

Ecological Economics

As Philip Hammond rolled out this year’s budget, it comes with further deliverance of injustice. With eight years of public spending cuts, 85% of the burden of austerity has fallen upon women in the UK [1].

So how come women bear the brunt of these measures? The answer is, inequality permeates our labour markets, our social security design and the role of women in the family state [2].

One might wonder then how inequality in its various forms has persisted in our socio-economic make up when distribution (the relative division of resource flow among alternative people) has such a long history in our established economic theory [3]. And, yet it endures with research showing that women’s access to resources is narrower and more constrained than that of men [4]. The understanding here is that unfair distribution – manifested as income and time inequality – can impede on women in crucial ways.

In a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, several causal processes are framed. The unfair distribution of caring and other responsibilities in the family state affects a women’s access to resources over the life course and can result in income and time poverty [4]. In our current societal set-up, the labour of dependency – i.e. caring for the young, the elderly or the sick – is often undertaken by women [5]. Traditionally, the UK has operated on a (modified) ‘male breadwinner’ model, where as well as caretaking responsibilities in the family state, women are increasingly expected to be wage earners [6]. This logic for the division of labour is extremely inequitable because caretaking responsibilities sap time and energy from investment in careers and other market activities [5]. As a result, women may experience greater economic inequality than men because they predominate sectors that are associated with part-time and low-pay work which very often do not provide a sufficient income. Redistributive measures through social security design are therefore crucial to women particularly for those who need to combine care commitments with paid employment [7]. Governmental cuts to spending on our social systems has therefore disproportionately affected women in the UK. What’s more, because of the nature of caretaking responsibilities being unpaid, it is routinely underestimated and exploited – generating life-long inequalities in social-standing, job opportunities, income and power [8]. Which from the established economic perspective may be framed as a problem of a women’s ‘economic inactivity’ [9].

When there is an absence of policy to address unpaid work, it is a fair claim that women are providing an unrecognised subsidy – not only to the individuals who receive it directly, but more significantly, to society. The externalisation of unpaid work is thus a distributional failing of an economic model that hides the activities in which it relies – e.g. the bearing and caring of the next generation of workers and consumers. Alike the assumption of the productive capacities of ecological nature, modern economics has presupposed women’s activities as an unquestioned sine qua non of the market [10]. Only by grasping the true extent in which unpaid care maintains the existing socio-economic state, can you begin to understand the way in which government policy often revolves around erroneous gender assumptions e.g. the heteronormative family state [11].  Which in turn is propped up by structures that are rooted in ideologies, particularly those of capitalism and patriarchy which uphold women’s unfair responsibility for unpaid care. And, as a result, explains the continued existence of pervasive inequality [12].

So, what’s the solution?

Fundamentally, it needs to be recognised that our economy relies on the labour of paid and unpaid care. This means reforming our national accounts to recognise its benefits – which will accrue in time with better cared for people with greater capabilities, including but not exclusively being able to earn and produce more [13].

The UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems of OECD countries [14]. The availability of formal childcare reduces care responsibilities at home and enables parents to work. The UK should provide formal childcare from the age of one as a statutory right with restrictions on the maximum fee parents can be charged – given the important role early years childcare plays in the prompt labour market re-entry of mothers after childbirth [6]. Still, a fairer distribution of resources needs to look beyond income inequality. To expand on the resource of time, there needs to be massive investment in our care infrastructure, making it universally available to relieve the necessity of unpaid care [15].

Equality impact assessments should complement massive investment in our social infrastructure. Understanding the impact of economic policy will lift the lid on budgets that have a disproportionate impact – such as universal credit for women, who can lose 10 times as much as they gain from the national living wage. Alleviating inequality in the UK requires the government to understand the consequences of their austere fiscal policies [16].



[1] Stewart, H. (2018). Women bearing 86% of austerity burden, Commons figures reveal. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[2] The Female Face of Poverty. (2018). [ebook] Women's Budget Group. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[3] Daly, H.E., (1992). Allocation, distribution, and scale: towards an economics that is efficient, just, and sustainable. Ecological economics. 6 (3), 185-193.

[4] University of Oxford (2014). Poverty through a Gender Lens: Evidence and Policy Review on Gender and Poverty. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[5] Fineman, M. (2000). ‘Cracking the foundational myths: independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency’. Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law. 8(13). 13 – 29.

[6] Chung, H. and van de Horst, M. (2017) ‘Women’s employment patterns after childbirth and the perceived access to and use of flexitime and teleworking’. Human Relations. 71(1). 47 – 72.

[7] The Female Face of Poverty. (2018). [ebook] Women's Budget Group. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[8] Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics. 1st ed. London: Random House Business Books, p.80.

[9] Ingold, J. and Hetherington, D. (2013) ‘Work, welfare and gender inequalities: an analysis of activation strategies for partnered women in the UK, Australia and Denmark’, Work, Employment and Society 27(4), pp. 621-638.

[10] Biesecker, A. and Hofmeister, S. (2010). Focus: (Re)productivity Sustainable relations both between society and nature and between the genders. Ecological Economics, 69(8), pp.1703-1711.

[11] Berik, G., Rodgers, Y. and Seguino, S. (2011). Inequality, development, and growth. London: Routledge.

[12] Higgins, C. (2018). The age of patriarchy: how an unfashionable idea became a rallying cry for feminism today. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[13] Macfarlane, L. (2018). New Thinking for the British Economy. [ebook] openDemocracy. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[14] BBC News. (2018). Reality Check: Do UK parents pay the most for childcare?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[15] Macfarlane, L. (2018). New Thinking for the British Economy. [ebook] openDemocracy. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].

[16] Creasy, S. (2018). ‘Ladydata’ could help solve gender inequalities | Stella Creasy. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2018].