We need to talk about fair care

The issue of gender equality in education and the workplace is something we are used to discussing and hearing about on International Women’s Day. Yet while the ‘gender gap’ in both education and the workplace has narrowed, the same advances have not been seen in the hidden world of caring for ageing parents, the burden of which remains disproportionately shouldered by women. They are, roughly, twice as likely to take on this caring responsibility, yet this imbalance receives very little air time.

Historically, women have been expected to fulfil caregiving roles, often at the expense of their participation in the wider world, and this expectation remains deeply ingrained in cultural norms. Unpaid care today still has far-reaching consequences for women’s financial security, career advancement, and overall well-being.

The economic effects are significant. Women who take time off work, reduce their hours, or quit work entirely to care for family members often face financial strain and detrimental long-term consequences for their earning potential and retirement savings. Caring also takes a toll on women’s psychological and physical well-being. The relentless juggling of caregiving responsibilities, often coupled with managing a career, raising children and running their household, can lead to burnout, stress, and mental health issues. Unfortunately, despite these well documented problems, this subject is not as widely discussed, or recognised, as its impact warrants.

The figures are alarming. A recent Carers UK study finds 20% of women and 13% of men are in some kind of unpaid caring role, around 8.8 million people. One in seven workers in paid employment is also caring for someone, around 4.87 million workers. Notably, while 57% of those caring less than 20 hours a week are women, this figure rises to 63% when the caring needs becomes more intense. As the proportion of the aged population continues to grow, there is a steady increase in this trend. In 2021 alone, nearly 400,000 workers had to leave their jobs to care for older or disabled family members.

Although these figures paint a gloomy outlook, there are patches of light on the horizon. Several studies, including a Europe-wide comparison of care systems, have identified work flexibility and time-off as among the top policies that would help carer employees.

On April 6th, the government is introducing two laws that address each priority: Changes to the Flexible Working Laws make it easier for an employee to request changes to how long, when and where they work, from ‘day one.’ Under the Carer’s Leave Regulations 2024, employees will now have a right to take up to one week’s unpaid leave per year, also from ‘day one.’ It is encouraging that policy-making circles have recognised, and acted upon, the need to better support carers.

Companies with thoughtful carer policies like Centrica an energy company with 20,000 employees, are also demonstrating clear business benefits to supporting carer employees. Centrica says that its policies have saved £1.8 million a year preventing unplanned absences and presenteeism, and a further £1.3 million in retention savings.

It is also encouraging that men who have given up work to care were more likely than women to have done so recently. This suggests real movement in male involvement. If one Carers UK study is correct, and half of all Britons will care for someone before the age of 57, raising this subject should get easier as caring becomes increasingly common among men.

The government is getting the ball rolling on April 6th. A strong imperative now lies with employers not just to introduce the legislation, but to understand this issue. The number one, outstanding request that carers say will improve their lives is a more understanding employer/ line manager.

The gender care gap can be narrowed with concerted action from policymakers, employers, families, and society at large.  Providing resources and training for caregivers, educating employers about the importance of supporting caregivers in the workplace, and raising awareness about the impact of the care gap on individuals and society, we can work towards creating a more equitable caregiving landscape. By promoting shared caregiving responsibilities within families and encouraging men to take on a more active role in caring for ageing parents, we can shift the cultural narrative.

The problem of how to care for our ageing population has surfaced as a major issue across the West and is gaining traction, somewhat submerging the specific issue of women’s care burden. While the increased political visibility of care is welcome, we are only at the beginning of what needs to be done. The national conversation is too quiet. We can all help by making this new legislation work. It plants a flag in the ground to build on.

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