Domestic and care work

Dominant cultural values frequently define housework as a form of drudgery, to be undertaken by those least valued in society: if not by women in the household, then by low paid cleaners, laundry workers, cooks - all activities more likely to be undertaken by women than men. The most embodied forms of childcare have also been consigned to wet nurses, au pairs, nannies and child-minders, depending on the era and the resources of the parents. In striving to achieve equality in a male-driven world (and a world where one salary or wage packet is not always enough to support a family), educated women have been drawn into masculinised professional work which continues to adhere to long hours and a presentee culture. Arguably, women are more expected to be present than men: according to the British Trades Union Council women employees (as opposed to self-employed) are less likely than men to work at home. Forty one per cent of employees who regularly work at home are women (TUC, 2018).

If we are to draw women (and men) with a diversity of experience into environment decision-making, then the workforce itself needs to welcome and accommodate those with caring responsibilities, those from a wide age range, those with disabilities and those from different ethnic and cultural groups. Dorceta Taylor’s research into the composition of US environmental institutions has, as identified earlier, demonstrated just how absent women of colour are from the professional environmental sector. She documents the relative success of white women gaining entry and being promoted, though there is still not gender parity at senior levels, but notes the low level of ethnic minority women here (Taylor, 2014).

Saragossi (2013) suggests that women with dependent children are more likely to be represented in senior decision-making positions when their male partners take up paternity leave. However, as male partners (and partners in same-sex relationships which emulate heterosexual divisions of labour) have mostly resisted assuming half of the child and house care, the only way in which the daily reproductive work of the family can take place is to use a professional salary to pay for a small army of lower paid child and other carers, cleaners, ironers, gardeners and producers of pre-prepared meals. The EU-funded project Baltic Gender, designed to change institutional structures to enable more women to enter careers in marine research, publishes a regular blog ‘Sharing the Caring’. What emerges from blog entries is that the women with children interviewed can only manage their science career with family members who care for their children, but that the main carer after the mother is more likely to be a grandmother than a child’s father (Baltic Gender, 2018).

In 2016, it was found that women in the UK continue to ‘shoulder the responsibility of unpaid work’, carrying out an overall average of 60 percent more unpaid work than men’ (ONS, 2016b, and see Table 5.1)

There is a remarkable consistency of who does housework across countries and global regions. The OECD finds that women spend more time on unpaid domestic and care work than men in every world region surveyed - regardless of development status, prevailing culture or division of paid labour. The differences were starkest in Mexico and India (6 hours 23 minutes and 5 hours 51 minutes of domestic chores and care work a day respectively for women compared with 2 hours 15 minutes and 50 minutes for men). In Europe, Portugal enjoyed the dubious privilege of recording the greatest difference with women performing 5.28 hours of domestic chores and care work and men undertaking 1 hour 30 minutes. The OECD

Table 5.1 Average hours of unpaid work done per week in each category for men and women: UK, 2015






















Adult care



Source: Office for National Statistics (2016b).

countries average was 4 hours, 24 minutes a day spent on housework for women and 74 minutes for men. Sweden had the smallest gender ratio with women undertaking 3 hours, 4 minutes a day and men undertaking 2 hours, 30 minutes (OECD, 2018).

Such differences are not necessarily a function of men spending more time in paid work. OECD data reveals that the average number of minutes spent in paid and unpaid work combined for the 29 OECD countries was 454.4 minutes for men and 482.5 minutes for women. Men in only four countries do more work overall than women. These are mostly countries which regularly feature in the most gender-equal lists: Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway. The OECD included some comparator states from outside the group, which all exhibited gender differences: In China women worked 44 minutes a day more than men, overall; in India, women worked 94 minutes longer, and in South Africa, 97 minutes longer (OECD, 2019). For women in some poorer countries, unpaid work associated with the home can be very time consuming, from collecting fuelwood and water to queueing for food or cooking gas. Selma James gives the example of women in La Paz, Bolivia, spending 24 hours in these queues (2012: 164). In sub-Saharan Africa it is estimated that 62 per cent of water collected from outside the home is collected by women, with a further 9 per cent by girls (Seager, 2018).

This kind of work distribution represents a care-economy which is largely invisible and un/undervalued, even though the British Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2016b) estimates that unpaid work in the UK represents 56 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), and in monetary terms, just over one trillion pounds. Nevertheless this work is the foundation which underpins the economy as a whole. Not only does this unpaid (and, as will be shown shortly, low-paid and feminised) labour provide the physical resources necessary for the economy to survive (ensuring that we are all clothed, fed and nurtured); it also provides the emotional labour which calms children down ahead of exams, or partners after a hard day at (paid) work, and which is additionally drawn on in hard times. As Selma James, an early advocate of‘wages-for-housework’, puts it:

‘Most women know that a basic element of housework is managing the tensions of and servicing in every other way those -women and men - who do waged work, school work, housework, and those distraught by unemployment, they know that work in the home is precisely to ensure that work outside and life generally goes on uninterrupted’. And that ‘[t]he family is a soakpit to absorb expressions of anger that are not allowed elsewhere.’

(James, 2012: 163)

At extremes, women in the home are subjected to rape and other domestic violence: it was only in the 1990s that rape within marriage became a crime in North America, Australia and most European countries, and not until 2006 in Greece. Before this men were legally entitled to sexually (ab)use their wives as they pleased. Indeed, this is still the case in some countries, including Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Lesotho, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Tanzania (Equality Now, 2017).

In rare, but notable, incidents women have been known to withdraw their unpaid labour as a form of non-violent resistance. In a mythologised act of resistance in Ancient Greece, Lysistrata and ‘sisters’ withheld sex from their male partners to end the Peloponnesian Wars. In 2006 Colombian women denied their partners sex - the strike of the crossed legs - as a protest about gang violence, and in 2011 this strategy was also used by Colombian women to encourage their husbands to support their action to get roads repaired. Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organised non-violence protests, including a sex strike, which led to the end of the 14-year civil war and election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Leymah Gbowee who organised the action was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her ‘non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace building work.’ Most recently, in 2019 women staged the largest strike in Swiss history protesting against gender inequality, including inequality in housework and a lack of childcare options.

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