01 Oct 2007

Care sector is a female ghetto, say researchers

Care work in the home

Care work in the home

With news that elderly people will receive unpaid care from their children worth £21 billion this year, researchers are warning that a care crisis will happen unless there is a shift in policy to support unpaid carers and address the gender imbalance in the sector.

The findings come from Professor Susan Himmelweit of The Open University and Professor Hilary Land of the University of Bristol, whose working paper – “Supporting parents and carers” – considers paid and unpaid care in the context of gender inequality. The paper is published by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (previously the Equal Opportunities Commission) and examines how policies should change to improve conditions in paid and unpaid care and encourage more men to take up caring roles.

Traditionally the UK’s ‘informal’ unpaid care sector has been dominated by women and this has been difficult to change, with unequal pay meaning that families depend on the earnings of men, who are working far longer hours than their EU counterparts. Now, as the population ages, women participate more in the labour market and there is more recognition of childcare as a public good, greater flexibility in employment and more support for carers is needed to make it easier for both men and women to combine carer and worker roles.

Professor Himmelweit said: “Care provided by family and friends far outweighs formal care, and it is in the Government’s interests to sustain and support this. To do this improvements in the conditions for both paid and unpaid care are needed. Without improvements in pay and training for the childcare and social care workforces, the paid care sector will find it hard to attract and retain staff and remain a female ghetto characterised by poor conditions both for the carers and those for whom they care.“

For unpaid care, the paper focuses on three elements which are essential to resolving the impending crisis – time; money and services. The time element focuses on increased flexibility at work, reducing the hours required of full-time workers to allow people to combine being carers with employment, allowing people to change their hours for a set period, creating a better system of paid leave and being more accommodating in times of crisis. Money has to be considered, as there is under funding of the sector at present and reluctance to make cash available for informal carers, in case the willingness to care is undermined. Thirdly, more services and support are required to help unpaid carers. All of these would not only support current unpaid carers, who are predominately women, they would also encourage men to take on caring roles.

Professor Himmelweit said: “The Government is concerned that if we paid for care, or put more money and support into this sector, no-one will do the informal unpaid care that is so necessary. However, other countries that do give more advanced support are not seeing this happen. Greater flexibility at work, improved financial support and better care services would enable more people, particularly men, to take on caring roles. Supporting unpaid carers will not result in less unpaid care work being done, but more.”

Professors Himmelweit and Land argue that policies can and should be developed to improve gender inequality in this sector and although a slow shift is starting to happen with more men taking on caring roles, particularly amongst older couples where people are living longer and young fathers, there is still much work to be done to close the gap.

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