The Issues

Links between Women's Economic Empowerment and unpaid care work

Women’s increasing entry into paid work has not been accompanied by a change in the gendered division of unpaid care work, revealing the persistence of gendered disadvantage in the economy.

There are strong links between women’s economic empowerment and their unpaid care work. For instance, the unequal burden of unpaid care work on women corrodes their ability to seek employment and income, at the same time as limiting their participation in civil, political and social spheres. More critically, the routine necessity of care-giving, particularly for small children, can push women into low-paid, often unsafe informal work that accommodates care responsibilities because of its flexibility of timing and location. Working in the informal sector limits economic gains for women, in addition often also having a negative impact on women’s bodies. Women’s income from paid work may also be eroded by the need for substitute care, which defeats the very objective of economic empowerment.

Working mothers frequently depend on older women and children, usually daughters, to care for smaller children, with adverse impacts on their education, health, and leisure. Women in paid work may not be able to adequately substitute for their care responsibilities, and therefore the care and human development outcomes of both the women, and those being cared for, may be compromised.

Studies have measured the time women spend on care work and other unpaid contributions to the economy. However, the relationship between women’s paid and unpaid work has not been studied in depth. There is little research that describes the effects of women’s employment on the social organisation of care within low-income families in developing countries. Policies that encourage women to enter the labour force often do not consider these aspects, thereby limiting the economic empowerment outcomes that these policies aim to bring about.

Important points to consider

  • Women's Economic Empowerment is not simply about labour force participation, but also about the choice to work, the choice of sector, location and working hours.
  • Unpaid care work impacts on the type, location and nature of paid work that women and girls can undertake.
  • Discrimination in the labour market: 
    • Women are more likely to stay at home rather than work in the paid economy.
    • Undertaking paid work close to home allows women to mind their children, cook meals and care for elderly relatives, without incurring additional time and financial costs.
  • Correlation between womenís stages of life and entry into the labour force:
    • An increase in womenís household responsibilities, either through marriage or childbearing, leads to many women either withdrawing from the labour market; finding more flexible, part- time jobs; or entering into self-employment that offers more flexible time management. 

More on unpaid care

Prevailing gender norms mean that, across all societies, women and girls undertake the bulk of unpaid care work, such as looking after and educating children, looking after older family members, caring for the sick, preparing food, cleaning, and collecting water and fuel. This unequal burden of unpaid care undermines women and girls’ rights (to decent work, to education, to health, to rest and leisure) and limits their opportunities. It impedes their economic empowerment, hindering women from seeking employment and income, which in turn holds them back economically.

Along with its international partners, the Institute of Development Studies has been exploring the political economy conditions under which policy actors recognise or ignore the significance of unpaid care. 

Find out more about unpaid care work on Interactions 

Conceptualising women's economic empowerment

This paper, 'Conceptualising women's economic empowerment: the importance of care' was presented on the panel, 'Social Reproduction, Care and Women's Economic Empowerment: New Framing and Research to support Claimsmaking', at the 24th IAFFE conference in Berlin from 16-18 July 2015. The panel, which was organised by the Institute of Development Studies, included papers from the Institute as well as international partners - Oxfam and ActionAid - and leading scholars, such as Professors Ruth Pearson and Rhys Jenkins. The panel addressed the complex links between social reproduction and care, and the economic empowerment of women and girls. It highlighted exciting new proposals in framing and gathering evidence on care to support claims making with State and private sector actors. Papers explored how literature has conceptualised women's economic empowerment and whether it has taken sufficient account of the care economy; inequalities in womenís work that perpetuate the care crisis; factors and conditions influencing positive change in household care provision; making claims in specific contexts for the recognition, reduction or redistribution of care work; and taxation and the reproductive bargain in the era of globalisation.

Download the full presenation