Women have long been assigned caregiving roles in almost every setting, from families to romantic relationships to workplaces. They are expected to take on both emotional and physical caregiving responsibilities, often with little emphasis on their own needs.
This has led to an imbalance in unpaid work in the U.S., where the majority of child care, home, and elderly caregiving responsibilities have been placed upon women—even those who work and pursue careers outside the home.
Women as caregivers: what the research says
Studies have shown that 66 percent of caregivers are women, and women caregivers spend as much as 50 percent more time devoted to caregiving than men. The average caregiver is a 49-year-old-woman who works outside the home but still provides 20 hours a week of unpaid care to her mother.
The COVID-19 pandemic only increased the caregiving burden on women, both working and non-working. One in 10 working mothers with children under 18 said they quit their job because of COVID-19, and half said that school closure was one of the contributing factors. Three out of 10 working mothers said they had to take off work because their child’s school or daycare closed.
Here are a few other key statistics from the KFF Women’s Health Survey:
47 percent of working mothers took unpaid sick leave because of a closed school or daycare. This increases to 65 percent for low-income mothers and 70 percent for mothers with part-time jobs.
More than one in 10 women cared for a family member prior to the pandemic.
More than one in 10 women have new caregiving responsibilities because of the pandemic.
Low-income women are three times more likely to quit their job because of COVID-19 than higher-income women.
Women are more likely to take time off work than men, especially to provide child care.
Pew Research sheds more light on how COVID-19 has impacted the caregiving burden for women:
In 2019, employed moms were already more likely than employed dads to report that it was harder to advance in their career as a working parent.
During the pandemic, working mothers were more likely than working fathers to say they had a lot of child care responsibilities while working from home.
Working mothers with children under 12 were more likely than fathers to say it was at least somewhat difficult for them to handle child care responsibilities during the pandemic.
Caregiving burdens aren’t new for women, nor is unpaid work, but they were only exacerbated by the additional stress brought by the pandemic.
Despite women’s advancement in the workplace, why do these circumstances continue?
Why women take on more caregiving responsibilities and unpaid labor
Women continue to bear the brunt of unpaid work and caregiving, creating challenges like burnout, financial stress, and psychological stress. This isn’t to mention that these concerns further get in the way of women advancing in workplaces and finding equality in their chosen industries.
Here are a few reasons why these trends continue today:
1. Societal expectations.
Unfortunately, there are still significantly differing expectations for men and women in America. Most people in the U.S. believe that our country hasn’t come far enough in equal rights for women. A Pew survey found that 66 percent of Americans believe that differing societal expectations for men and women is an obstacle to equality. These expectations include that women should be a parent or caregiver and exhibit traits like kindness and helpfulness.
2. Society values men’s work contributions more than women’s.
Pew research also found that 53 percent of adults place more value on men’s contributions at work than at home, and only 15 percent value women’s work contributions more than home. This kind of thinking continues the age-old belief that women should take care of things at home while men are working to make money.
3. Lack of policies that support women’s unpaid work and caregiving.
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. was only one of four countries that didn’t guarantee employees access to any type of paid leave. The relief packages passed during COVID-19 changed this, but there is still a discrepancy in family support and child care to support working mothers and parents of young children. These supports are often “unaffordable and inaccessible” to women, according to the Center for American Progress, and “child care has never received sufficient support” from the government.
4. Lack of workplace flexibility.
Finally, women who have been working essential jobs during the pandemic don’t have the kind of flexibility they need from their employer to ensure they can fulfill their caregiving responsibilities effectively. They may thus lose or quit their jobs in order to give their time and energy to family or care of loved ones.
5 ways companies and allies can lessen the burden of caregiving and unpaid labor on women
Companies and allies of working women can do a lot to help ease these burdens and fight for equality and fair working conditions. Here are a few places to start:
1. Offer better family benefits.
Increased paid leave will help people tasked with unpaid caregiving responsibilities take time away from work to care for their loved ones or themselves without risking job loss. This means more paid sick leave and family and medical leave for workers.
2. Provide more work flexibility.
Practice placing more value on deliverables over time spent in seat. Sometimes just offering caregivers options in their schedule can accommodate their needs. If they start and end work an hour earlier than normal, and nothing is lost as far as productivity, it’s a small change that can help better manage their home responsibilities.
3. Ensure equal pay.
The gender pay gap still exists in the U.S. Despite the fact that women are working more than ever, wage gaps persist and are more significant for women of color. Women earn an average of 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the gap has only diminished 4 cents in more than 10 years. Companies should ensure that wages are assessed regularly, the work of women is never devalued, and that unconscious biases that might affect pay or promotions are addressed.
4. Question gender role assignment.
Allies of women, companies, and society as a whole all need to ensure they are not confining anyone to specific gender roles that continue these expectations and assumptions. Pigeonholing based on gender leads to continued systemic disadvantages for women—and it isn’t great for men either. To learn more about why, read our article on the “boys will be boys” attitude that sets men up to fail.
5. Don’t assume you know how much work a person is taking on.
While caregiving and unpaid labor roles of working parents are fairly visible, women without children can also do unpaid work that is invisible to employers to take care of their parents, extended families, partners, friends, and others. Paid time off, flexible work hours, and equal pay are for everyone for a reason: You simply don’t know what someone is dealing with outside of work.
Plus, 2 ways partners can lessen the burden of caregiving and unpaid labor on women
1. Recognize their role in women taking on more work.
The first step in solving a problem is realizing there is one. For women who are married or in relationships, especially with men, the unfair divide of labor at home needs to be realized before it can be fixed. And that doesn’t just mean recognizing physical tasks; it means understanding how gendered upbringing impacts relationship dynamics. For instance, weaponized incompetence, when a person pretends not to know how to do something so someone else will do it for them, is common among men in heterosexual relationships. Acknowledging ways men avoid work is important in addressing it.
2. Negotiate types of work at home.
Dividing up work equitably means looking at the balance of paid and unpaid work that each partner takes on. Follow advice in this article on project managing your partnership to ensure both people do their fair share.