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The true value of care

“Minimal” shift in our culture of care despite the fact that women are on the whole educated and employed in higher numbers than ever before

How care is viewed and valued - and how this contributes to inequality, both in the home and in the workplace - is the crux of a new awareness campaign from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The third in the “Because we’re all human/ Means we’re all equal” series of campaigns from the Commission, “Care about equality” aims to uncover entrenched societal attitudes towards care and highlight the often heavily gendered nature of caring.

Featuring interviews with women from different backgrounds sharing their personal perspective on how gender inequality and care work impacts on their daily lives, their career potential and their futures, the goal of the campaign is to increase awareness of this nuanced and often complex issue, says chief commissioner Sinead Gibney, who adds that it is a strategic priority for IHREC. “The Commission wants to really look at the impact of our attitudes to care and how we think about care and how that impacts equality, particularly equality in the workplace.”

Ultimately, this is an issue that touches the lives of everyone, Gibney says. “We are all carers or cared for at some stage in our lives and all women are shaped and impacted by the societal and structural expectations that we have around care. The campaign itself hopes to increase the awareness of how heavily gendered our caring is, and what it means for women and others in the workplace.”

The use of unscripted conversations from women who give or receive care as part of the campaign is a powerful tool; Gibney says it “helps to really amplify the voices of those most affected by this issue.” The goal is to start a conversation, one that is not always easy to have, she admits. “I would hope that we would reach a really wide audience with this message and speak to both people who are in those care roles but also the people who aren’t and who are taking on less care responsibility in the home, and prompt that discussion, which can be difficult.”

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Gibney says there has been a “minimal” shift in our culture of care despite the fact that women are on the whole educated and employed in higher numbers than ever before, and notes that research shows that, on average, women spend twice the number of hours as men on caring and double the time on housework.

And while the topic of gender equality is at the forefront of societal discourse these days, what this means for a woman’s everyday reality is often forgotten, Gibney says.

“When we think of gender equality, we often think of the pay gap and pushing through glass ceilings but I think it is the broader gender gap itself, which is clearly demonstrated by all of the hours we spend caring for other people as well as cooking, cleaning and managing households.”

Most of this care is unpaid and often unrecognised, she adds, saying that the wider debate around care can be “one dimensional”. “Policy solutions offered often fit the needs of those households where parents are married, able bodied and work 9 to 5 but as we all know there are so many different types of jobs in the labour market, as there are different types of families.”

As a single parent, Louise Bayliss knows all about a disproportionate care burden. A founding member and spokesperson for S.P.A.R.K (Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids), she is one of the voices heard in the new campaign.

According to Bayliss, the disruption to normal services such as childcare and home help during the pandemic served to highlight the true value of care. “It showed how important care was to society and how people were not able to function without it. But it was only then really considered and since then it has reverted straight back.”

She says women are invariably put in a position of caring throughout their lives, whether it’s having children or caring for elderly parents - or both. “It’s so inbuilt and so ingrained that people assume the daughter will step up.”

Single parents naturally shoulder the majority, if not all, of the responsibility of care for their child or children. But Bayliss points out that this has a knock-on effect on their financial position given that they cannot pursue the same career opportunities. “I know many lone parents like myself, who just worked part-time so they could fit work around school. You just don’t have the same career path and you could be 15 or 20 years before you can really get back into work.” The financial implications of this are obvious, but Bayliss also points out that these “gaps” in employment affect pension entitlements, as well as negatively impacting career progression. “You end up back in the jobs market as a middle-aged woman who is never going to make it up the career ladder in the same way. It’s that crucial time when you should be building your career but you can’t and many end up in poverty because of it.” Bayliss says this financial disadvantage needs to be addressed and adds that it is compounded by the failure to recognise the care provided by parents.

“The National Childcare Scheme is only suitable for people in 9 to 5 jobs and does not cater for the types of jobs that many lone parents are working, such as hospitality and retail - they work evenings and weekends. Meanwhile maintenance is based on the material needs of the child, with no recognition of that lost income that is a result of caring for your child. Women need to be compensated for the hours they spend caring and cannot work.”

Bayliss says she hopes the campaign leads to a broader acknowledgement that “care is work - even if it’s not paid, it should be valued.”

The campaign is especially timely, according to Gibney, as it comes on the back of the December 2022 launch of the Gender Equality Committee’s report, where it called on the Government to hold a referendum next year on the constitutional definition of care, while the European care strategy launched in September last year means there now expectations being put on member states that will accumulate over the coming years. She believes there is much more that could be done to support and value caring and carers.

“While people say positive change is happening, the message is that this isn’t big enough and is tantamount to an incremental shift rather than the huge cultural shift that is necessary.”

The Commission hopes to eventually see a national strategy on care, which would reflect policy in a more structured and progressive way, she says. “Our mandate at the Commission is to protect human rights and equality and this is such a core element in equality in Ireland and across the globe, how unpaid care and paid care impacts on women’s ability to achieve gender equality.”

Find out more on #CareAboutEquality at www.ihrec.ie