Promoting gender equality and development through the care economy

April 30, 2019



The paper tries to study the reasons why there is a lack of women's role in the decision-making process in the developed countries, although women and men share the same educational opportunities. One can hope that, if women become equally educated they will join the labor force and have access to the same opportunities as men. However, even if in most of the developed countries the access to health systems and to the education of women are at the same level of men, the income and opportunity's gap is still increasing. Comparing empirical evidence of United States and Iceland, both characterised by high levels of human and economic development and by different levels of gender equality, I came to the conclusion that regulations and policies that aim to reduce and redistribute the unpaid work are needed. Hence, the care economy, as it is at the basis of great part of gender imbalances and also can pertains poverty reduction, decent jobs creation and sustainable growth, can propose strategies of inclusive growth and human development with the aim of enhancing social sustainability.




Social sustainability, the third dimension of sustainable development, is described by "Social Life", a UK based social enterprise specialising in place based innovation, as “a process for creating sustainable successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work" (as cited in ADEC innovations, 2018). Human rights are the cornerstone of social sustainability, and gender rights represent an important achievement of the latter. In this research paper, I demonstrate how gender inequality is still an impediment in many developed countries. One can hope that, if women become equally educated they will join the labor force and have access to the same opportunities as men. However, in these countries female schooling is more than acceptable. It is, in fact, the social customs and institutions that effectively limit or prevent women's access to most economic and political opportunities. After having analysed the relationship between economic and human development (using Amartya Sen's eyes) and the level of gender parity - and concluded how the latter can be achieved without undermining the economic prosperity of a country - I analysed how the different levels of gender inequality between the richest country of the planet derives from discrimination of women in politics and in the labour force.Using the sociological work of Bourdieu, I investigate how power's relationships between men and women still persist and how to eliminate the net division of roles that the two genders have in our societies' labour market and family life.



Gender inequality has been at the core of the policy debate concerning development for the past few decades (Bandirea and Natraj, 2013). As the Human Development Report affirms, gender inequality is still one of the main obstacles that limit the achievement of human development, and as a consequence, social sustainability and wellness (2019). However, whereas the direction of causality between gender inequality and economic development has not entirely been identified, I analysed their relationship focusing on how the gender gap in political participation and economic activity is still very much predominant in many of the richest countries. Therefore, I argue that gender equality is essential not only to achieve human development, but it might also be a strategic mean to reach sustainable economic growth.


1.1 Gender Inequality examined through income and opportunity's gap and its relationship with economic growth

As many policies and regulations in each country are still based specifically on the results of their economic performance, it is fundamental to understand the relationship between economic efficiency and gender equity in order to stimulating a collaboration between these two dimensions. Discrimination among genders is directly visible throughout the widening process of income gap between men and women all around the world. This has been increasing over the past 10 years, even though the average earning of the world population has been growing over the same period of time.




In 2017, the average salary for women was $12000, compared with $21000 for men (Harris, 2017). This gap is a consequence either to the fact that women and men who are doing the same job are paid differently. Or perhaps women are more likely to work in industries with lower average pay, rather than high-income areas such as finance or technology which are traditionally dominated by men (Harris, 2017). Besides this, gender's disparity can be explained also as an inequality of opportunity, where the relationship between income, well-being, and freedom depends on "contingent circumstances, both personal and social" (Sen, as cited in Analysis Division Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2019).The World Economics Forum has elaborated in 2006 the Global Gender Gap Index, which is a synthetic measure of the process of each country of the planet in the fight against gender inequality, it expresses the percentage of the gap between men and women countries have filled. It is formed with four components: Participation in economic activity measured by the difference of women and men employment rate; the differential in renumeration and the gap in career opportunities; access to education measured by the differential of access to primary, secondary and tertiary education along with male and female population literacy rate; health and survival measured by indicators of the preference in a child’s sex and the gap between male and female life expectancy; and participation in political activity which summarises the number of women involved in the political administration of central governments.


Top of the GGG Index:


It is particularly interesting how countries such as Qatar, Luxembourg and Singapore which have gained the first, second and third rank of GDP per capita PPP (used to compare economies and incomes of people by adjusting for differences in prices in different countries) in 2017 (IMF), are not even between the first twenty countries which have the lower level of gender gap. Following the global ranking established by the IMF, just Norway and Ireland, which have respectively gained the second and eighth position in the Global Gender gap Report, have obtained the sixth and the fifth position in the GDP per capita PPP. Besides, what do countries as Norway or Ireland have in common with a country such as Rwanda? If the first two are what the World Bank classes as high income, Rwanda features on the UN list of 48 least developed nations (Thomson, 2017). However, when it comes to gender equality, at 86%, Rwanda has one of the highest rates of female labour force participation in the world (Thomson, 2017). This percentage has its roots in the country's devastating genocide, after which women made up the 65% of the surviving population and they had to fill the roles once occupied by men. This situation is not that different from the one created by the World Wars in many Western Countries, but Rwanda was able both to put in place policies to help keep women in work and pro-women laws (like the 3 months maternity leave) that contributed raising female political participation, being  61,3% the percentage of seats in parliaments occupied by women (WEF, 2017). This empirical evidence shows that economic development and gender inequality do not always coincide, making it very hard to understand the actual correlation between economic development and gender inequality. Is gender equality unnecessary, or worse, counter-productive to achieve economic growth?

Even though there is not any direct evidence demonstrating that policies that aim to achieve gender equality always have a positive effect on economic growth, there is neither any evidence shows that achieving economic growth may prevent any change to attain gender parity. For instance, if we focus on Iceland and Italy we might find the former has been leading the first position in gaining gender equality for the past decade occupying the 14th position of the GDP PPP ranking. The latter arrives at just the 82nd position of the gap and the 33rd position of its economy. The GGG index register very similar values for education and health criteria, but Italy presents significantly lower values for female participation in economic (has filled 57% of the gap vs 81% of Iceland) and political (being the gap 67%) activity criteria (Moccia, 2018). Eventually, Iceland represent evidence (together with Sweden, Norway or even Germany and France) on how a country can still pursue economic growth taking into account in its policies and gender inequality regulations in the economic participation sphere.


1.2 Evaluating and analysing gender inequality's impact on human development using Amartya's Sen Capability Approach

As we understand that gender equality and economic growth can collaborate towards development, it is important to underline how in our new perspective, social sustainability, and gender parity as its essential component, is a fundamental feature of human development. Hence, it is important either to study the concept of development not just as an economic growth perspective but to consider other factors that may influence it and either underlining the interdependence of economic, social and cultural variables. The whole idea of development understood as well-being is expressed throughout the concept of capabilities elaborated by Amartya Sen, which aim is to move away from the income led evaluation methods and focus on people's ability to achieve the things that they value. Wellbeing can thus be measured by assessing people's freedom and choices and it is characterised by two components: Functioning and capability. A functioning is an achievement of a person: "what he or she manages to do or to be, and any such functioning reflects, as it were, a part of the state of that person" (Sen, 2000, as cited on Freudian, 2010); Capability is described as the actual opportunity of an individual. Sen’s theory of development as an expansion of capabilities is the starting point for the contemporary idea of the human development approach that sees the purpose of development in the improvements of human lives by expanding the range of things that a person can be and do, such as to be healthy and well nourished, to be knowledgeable, and to participate in community life, where economic growth is only a means and not an end in itself (Fukuda Parr, 2003). In order to introduce human development as an alternative paradigm and to gain the attention of policy-makers of this new approach, the Human Development Index (HDI) was introduced. It is a composite index which is a frame of reference for both social and economic development measuring the average achievements of a country in a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living (Ferrant, 2015). Conceptualised as a measure of average achievements, HDI does not take into account the distribution of achievements, which leaves out equity and gender disparities. This is an essential outcome by which to evaluate progress. For this reason, attempts were also made to develop supplementary measures that adjust the HDI by gender disparity (Fukuda Parr, 2003). The first global indices designed to reflect gender disparities were the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) that were launched in the 1995 Human Development Report. However, because of many controversies, they were substituted with the Gender Inequality Index (GII) in 2010 (Gaye, Klugman, Kovacevic, Twig, Zambrano, 2010). The new Index covers all regions of the HDI spectrum and serves as a synthetic measure of gender disparities in the fields of empowerment, the labour market, and reproductive health issues at the national level. Their results reveal that gender inequalities substantially erode human development achievements in all countries, but with significant variation. Therefore, as it measures the human development costs of gender inequality, the latter is an intrinsic dimension of human development. The higher the GII value, the more gender disparities and the more loss to human development occurs. Comparing this data we can note that countries with the lowest HDI score are also the same countries with the highest gender inequality score, and vice versa. Regarding this vicious circle, gender equality also has instrumental value to achieve greater human development.




2.1 Bourdieu' concept of habitus to comprehend the persistence of gender inequality in Western Countries

By analysing the various variables that form human development we have seen how a capability approach can be applied to conceptualise and assess gender inequality in our societies (Robeyns, 2002). However, even if this approach tends to be prescriptive and evaluative, it lacks of the explanatory aspect. Instead, Bourdieu’s concepts of field, forms of capital, and habitus may enable a deeper understanding of the processes and experience of gender inequality in developed countries where women are still out of the decision making processes. Bourdieu's sociology explains that the differences in attitudes, preferences and choices are learned, internalised and accepted as "truth" by individuals since their early socialisation. In fact, the term ‘habitus’ is both social and individual as it describes our beliefs, values, tastes, predispositions, commonsense, habits, and dispositions ‘become durably incorporated in the body’, reinforcing gender or sexuality as well as other social classifications (Bourdieu 1993, as cited in Bowman, 2010). Bourdieu’s concepts facilitate a more finely grained explanation of inequality and his concepts can help to make sense of the relationship between objective social structures (institutions or ideologies) and everyday practices (e.g. what people do and why they do it). His ideas enable an analysis of how power persists and why in many developed countries the majority of people still accept and think it is a natural existence to have "feminine" or "masculine" types of jobs. In fact, because there is still a connection between earning power and masculinity, in our societies men need to be financial providers (Lipman, 2018). In practical terms, women and men have both internalised that they have different biological characteristics that are a natural justification of the socially constructed difference between the genders, particularly the social division of labour (Bourdieu, 1999). Bourdieu suggests that those who are dominated unconsciously collude with their domination through mis-recognition of the processes of domination which also explains why many individuals that can reasonably be defined as sexist are women (1998, as cited in Bowman, 2010). Multiple studies have demonstrated that some 75 percent of men and 80 percent of women unconsciously equate men with work, and women with family (Lipman, 2018). Is being aware of this deep incorporation of cultural beliefs as biologically truths, enough to change society's way of thinking in order to act? On the contrary, are practical changes required if we want to push for the betterment of a woman’s (and man’s) status?

Even Bourdieu, who sought those understandings useful to effect change, argues that change cannot come about solely as a result of the ‘awakening of consciousness’ but as a ‘transformation of the objective structures’ that have produced and sustained the dispositions and beliefs in the first place is needed (Bowman, 2010).


2.2 Formulating policies and regulations in order to provide practical changes in the workplace for both women and men: Overcoming the trade off between job opportunities and family life

On the 17th July of 1919, in Italy, the law n.1176 - entitled Disposizioni sulla capacità giuridica della donna - was enacted. This law abolished the marital authorisation and allowed women to join public employments. The same year a law in favour of the universal suffrage (Martini-Gasparotto) was approved by the House of Representatives, however, the early failure of the government occurred while it was still discussed in the Senate. In fact, during the First World War, women were committed in replacing men in most of the jobs traditionally belonging to the male sphere which led to policies less restrictive for the female role in the workplace and to legislation that would have allowed women to vote (Fugazza and Cassamagnaghi, 2006). Right after the end of the War though, women started to experiment with the consequences of the "restoration of roles" (Bianchi, 2006) that were ultimately re-established and reinforced by policies and legislations. This was especially true during the consolidation of Fascism which aimed to reinforce the role of women in the family functions and to minimise their presence in the job market. In fact as the recent case of Rwanda, we have already seen that in periods of crisis or war of a country, in which women demonstrate the ability to succeed in their job activities that were traditionally characterised by the exclusive presence of men. This may lead to a radical change to the society's structure and overcoming gender inequalities. In these examples, both women and men found themselves in a situation that proves the equality of the two genders in the job efficiency. As a consequence, this situation moved towards women's awareness and men's acceptance of changes that can be made in other areas, as in the political representation. However those changes need to be sustained by specific and enduring policies or regulations aimed at least to the maintenance of the situation created by those period of changes. Otherwise, like in the case of Italy after the First World War, the changes can easily be null in the long-term. In order to recognise the importance of certain legislation as quotas to guarantee the presence of women in politics, we must first understand policies directed at the objective economic structural. Specifically, how much changes in the care-work incentives can make a real difference in the long-run changes of beliefs and dispositions of people.


2.2.1 United States and Iceland: two developed countries in comparison to understand how opposite approaches to the care work environment has lead to polarised score of gender parity

Both United States and Iceland show high levels of economic growth and overall human development. However in the US, the status of women in society is much less powerful then that of Icelandic women. Thus, as gender equality represents an important component of social sustainability, the latter is much more weakened. What we have already theorised is that women's discrimination in developed societies can be found in all the areas concerning workplace and politics. Even if in the US women have caught up with men in terms of education, this reduction in inequality reduction is not matched by a reduction of the motherhood gap. This is defined as the difference in labor force participation between married and single women and between women with and without children. In fact, the pay and opportunity gap starts to widen at the age of thirty-two, when men disproportionately begin being promoted into management jobs while women decide to quit their jobs or they have to choose jobs with shorter work schedules (part-time employment), or that offer more flexibility, such as informal self-employment, home-based work, public jobs (UN Women, 2018). The cultural emphasis on being the ideal mother, along with a corporate culture that demands long work hours, makes motherhood very difficult for women with careers (Harvard University, 2018). In the US, even though women earn almost 60 percent of college degrees and more than half of graduate school degrees, they represent just 5.6 percent of S&P 500 executives and 18 percent of board members of Fortune 1000 firms (Lipman, 2018). The actual situation is that American women earn less than men in almost every profession. Claudia Golden, a labor economist at Harvard, has found for instance that in Silicon Valley, women earn 40 percent to 73 less than their male counterparts (as cited in Lipman, 2018). Some of the main causes include the lack of paid parental leave and the average workweek salaried professionals, that has escalated to more than fifty hours, up from forty hours, leaving little time for the family (Lipman, 2018). When women who decide to take a salary hit after having a family, they experience a financial penalty of 7 percent per child. Many times shifting to a part-time position is seen as a failure, or as a sign that the person is not qualified or committed to the work (Lee, as cited in Lipman, 2018). The opposite dynamic is visible in Iceland, where there is a high and strong percentage of government support for parents. The country not only has generous parental leave - paid for 9 months, 6 split among both parents and 3 more for whichever parent chooses to use them - but it also offers heavily subsidised day care. Besides, from January 1st of 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world provided by laws that imposes fines to companies that fail to meet that standard. There will also be repercussions (around 500 $ fees per a day) for companies that do not follow a certain basic standard of pay equality (Jones, 2018). However, data shows that Iceland is one of the best countries in the world to be a woman. It is also true that those data are the testament of how much the status of gender equality is really poor in the world and prove how far we still have to go. For instance, I interviewed Karitas, who is an old friend of mine from Iceland. Now a young woman working in the software industry, what emerged from her point of view is that even in her country there are still milestones to be reached. As she is working in a male dominated industry, 90% of her colleagues are men, making her connection with her boss or coworkers is even harder. Using Karitas's words, if  "often my coworkers meet outside of work and I am not invited, when it comes to promoting someone, who takes the cake? The guy my boss know really well personally or me?". What has emerged from this interview it is that also in Iceland, the glass ceiling effect is still a predominant phenomenon in the workplace. This explains why women are often not able to reach the top ranks of their jobs. That also explains the concerns of Karitas about her future career as she said, ”even though it is not great to be a young woman in a workplace, I am more nervous of becoming older. Older men are considered ‘canons’ and very valuable employees. Older women are just 'burnt out'". Another aspect emerged with this conversation is that the #metoo movement had a negative effect as, using her own words, "men now are more afraid to be around women and to push towards more gender equality men and women needs to be in this struggle together”. From this micro-empirical evidence we can deduce that even in a progressive country gender equality still exists. This is caused by the difficult balance between having a family and having a career. It is important to understand that this trade off is an issue that involves men as well. Even if men gain more in terms of career opportunities that make them more valuable in the society, they often give up to a great part of well-being and family life.


2.2.2 The care economy: recognising, reducing and redistributing women unpaid work to succeed in social sustainability

From these empirical evidences, we can assume that in order to change the status of women in society, regulations and the goal of policies is to reduce and redistribute the unpaid work. Even the pay gap is often invisible as it is explained away by other factors that usually cover the presence of the opportunity gap. In fact, the imbalanced distribution of unpaid work time facilitates occupational and vertical gender jobs segregation. More than half (51 per cent) of female employment is concentrated in service sector jobs, primarily in public sector services (such as teaching or public administration), sales and clerical services and domestic services (ILO, 2016). They provide the types of schedules that are compatible with unpaid domestic work. At the same time teaching or domestic work, the stereotypical ‘female’ jobs, are seen as an extension of women’s traditional roles as caregivers and are paid less. Care responsibilities also prevent women from reaching top-level decision-making positions, which typically require more time commitment and leave a limited space for family life, as I elaborated, via the 2018 UN women report, work-family policies as investments of care economy can facilitate to the betterment of women in the workforce. This includes the gender employment gap, the occupational and vertical gender segregation, and the gender pay gap.

These policy actions must be structured under the following:

- Recognition: it must be guaranteed through inter-ministerial coordination committed to the harmonisation of existing legislation and practice while introducing new actions towards the reduction and redistribution of unpaid work. The collection of data and the valuation of unpaid care work can be used to increase its visibility in the policy realm.

- Reduction: This includes public investments in social care service infrastructure and physical infrastructure. It entails a web of institutions and professional services, including childcare centres, pre-schools, after-school study programmes and day-care centres. As it requires state intervention and financing, an estimation of short-term economic returns from public investments in the social care service sectors is demanded. Current studies find far superior impacts from social care expansion in terms of employment generation, poverty reduction and gender equality over spending of similar magnitude on physical infrastructure.

- Redistribution: This includes labour market policies aimed at redistributing the care burden from women to men of unpaid care work. Care leave, care insurance schemes and regulation of workplace hours constitute the important policy pillars (UN women, 2018). The European experience with paternity leave helps identify a number of incentives that promote fathers to use care leave and increase their take-up times: when the leave is paid almost with full coverage, when a segment is reserved only for the father's use, and when the leave is flexible so that it can be used in tandem with part-time paid work without necessarily requiring a full departure from the labour market (Ikkaracan, 2010, as cited in UN women, 2018). Yet only a few countries take measures to promote equal take-up of the leave time by mothers and fathers and Iceland is the only country where parental leave is equally allocated by gender and corresponds to 80 percent of salary (Weller 2016, as cited in UN Women, 2018). Afterwards, labour market reforms for shortening full-time weekly work hour are required to improve both the work-life balance and the equal sharing of unpaid care work between women and men. Moreover, a crucial intervention towards reduction of unpaid ultimately not only would lead to a human development growth, but also to a stronger economic system. In fact, if women’s equal access to the labour market is based on a comprehensive strategy of recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work rather than encouraging women to superficially mimic male patterns in the market economy, it may generate millions of decent jobs both in the care sector as well as in other sectors through backward linkages.



With this paper I came to the conclusion that the care economy can propose strategies of inclusive growth and human development with the aim of enhancing social sustainability. The huge gender gaps in unpaid care work time translate into parallel gaps in paid work time and systematically generate gender inequalities in the form of a multitude of market outcomes. These market outcomes include the gender employment gap, horizontal and vertical gender jobs segregation, the gender earnings and wealth gap as well as gender gaps in political representation and decision-making. The centrality of unpaid care work and the care economy to development policy rests not only on the fact that unpaid care work constitutes almost half of total global work time. The care economy is at the basis of great part of gender imbalances but also that they pertains poverty reduction, elimination of inequalities by socio-economic status, decent jobs creation and sustainable, inclusive growth. Accordingly, the care economy can also contribute to the betterment of economic sustainability through the reproduction of present and future workers. Social sustainability, as caring labour, constitutes the essence of what holds us together as families, friends and as local communities. Therefore, workplaces need to adapt to the “whole person,” both women and men bearing in mind the opening lines of the very first 1990 Human Development Report: ‘‘People are the real wealth of a nation’’ (UNDP, 1990).





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