Call us

Gender equality: Who cares? Do you?

Inequality / COMMENTARY
Laura Rayner , Danielle Brady

Date: 08/03/2022
It is everyone’s responsibility to undertake a deep reassessment of how we view and value care work. Otherwise, no matter the height of the ambition of EU action, a ‘gender-equal Europe’ will remain an aspiration, not a reality.

Typically unrecognised, undervalued and heavily dominated by women, care work has been acknowledged as essential in supporting our economies and societies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This appreciation was re-emphasised in recommendations formulated by citizens participating in the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). Policymakers and citizens must now discuss these recommendations in the Conference Plenary to transform them into workable policy actions. Here are five steps on how this can be achieved.

These steps would address gender inequalities, strengthen care systems and prepare for demographic change. However, only by making a systemic reassessment of how we view and value care work will we ever make significant progress in tackling gender inequalities beyond a superficial level.

Who cares?

Most care work in the European Union is conducted by women. Women account for 76% of the 49 million care workers in the EU, and specifically 93% of all childcare workers and teachers’ aides, 86% of personal care workers in health services and 95% of domestic cleaners. These professions tend to be some of the most underpaid and undervalued in the EU labour market, contributing to the long-standing gap in earnings and pensions between men and women.

Furthermore, 80% of care in Europe is provided by family, friends and neighbours. Without this unpaid contribution by informal (and usually female) carers, our healthcare and long-term care systems would undoubtedly collapse.

Care work also exacerbates other gender gaps in the EU labour market. With most informal care work being carried out by women, this often acts as a barrier to labour market participation. The numbers are stark, with some 7.7 million women across the EU remaining outside the labour market due to care responsibilities, compared to just 450,000 men. COVID-19 further hindered women’s participation in the labour market, with many women reducing working hours or leaving employment to perform care duties. This has implications here and now, and will also have a long-term impact on women’s social protection coverage and pension payments.

Why care?

Tackling this imbalance in care responsibilities is essential for not only reducing gender inequalities but also preparing for changing demographics across Europe. The European Commission’s 2021 Strategic Foresight Report identifies shifts in demography as an important structural trend that will affect the EU’s capacity and freedom to act.

This shift undoubtedly poses specific challenges related to care work. The number of EU citizens in need of long-term care will increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030, to 30.5 million in 2050. If there are no improvements in access to care in view of these demographic changes, more individuals – most likely women – could leave the labour market or reduce working hours to perform unpaid care work. Leaving aside the obvious gender equality implications, this would also have a detrimental impact on the labour market dependency ratio,[1] with a subsequent negative impact on the economy.

Conveniently, reducing gender inequalities and simultaneously preparing our care systems for an ageing population make strong economic sense. The Women’s Budget Group found that investing in care would create 2.7 times as many jobs as making the same investment in construction. More specifically, it would create 6.3 times as many jobs for women as well as 10% more for men. This would positively affect GDP and the gender employment gap and strengthen our social infrastructure. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, closing the labour market participation gap would result in a GDP per capita increase of between 3.2 to 5.5% in 2050. This translates to a GDP increase of up to €280 billion by 2030 and €1,490 billion by 2050.

How can you show you care?

While care may be a member state competence, the promotion of gender equality is not. The EU can play a significant role, and it is clear from the CoFoE recommendations that citizens expect swift and effective EU action in tackling gender inequality. The following five steps act upon the recommendations from the European Citizens’ Panel 1 (ECP 1), translating them into concrete proposals to reduce gender inequalities, strengthen care systems and prepare for future demographic change.

First, in line with recommendations 20, 22 and 23, the EU should promote investment in care. The continuing focus on the construction sector – now supplemented by investments in the green and digital transitions – could widen gender inequalities, as this sector tends to be male-dominated. The European Commission’s commitment to supporting its member states’ efforts to improve the availability and affordability of quality care services for children and other dependents through EU funds like the European Social Fund Plus and the European Regional Development Fund is more than welcome. However, investing in all areas of care should be central to the Recovery and Resilience Facility. European funding should also be conditional on the provision of fair working conditions, including the guarantee of a decent living wage.

Second, the upcoming European Care Strategy must set targets for the provision of quality, affordable and accessible care across the EU. Not only must it revise the 2002 European Council Barcelona targets for early childhood care but also set new ones on care for the elderly and those requiring full-time care. The progress on meeting these targets should be monitored through the European Semester. The Care Strategy should be published, as planned, in autumn 2022 and not be subjected to the delays seen in other areas closely linked to gender equality, such as the Pay Transparency Directive.

Third, with all member states having different approaches to the provision of care, this heterogeneity offers opportunities. The Care Strategy should create a platform to support the sharing of best practices, providing member states with a mechanism to transfer knowledge and innovation and creating long-term care systems that offer affordable, accessible and quality care to all EU citizens. Not only is the creation of this platform low-hanging fruit, but it would also realise the desire expressed in recommendation 20 of ECP 1 to improve the sharing of expertise and best practices in EU health and social affairs.

Fourth, the European Commission must ensure that the Work-Life Balance Directive 2019/1158 is implemented across the EU27. As recognised in recommendation 2 of ECP 1, ensuring a work-life balance enhances social cohesion, contributes to a level playing field and positively affects individual well-being. The widespread provision of flexible working, parental leave and carers’ leave could make an important contribution to reducing gender inequalities. As such, the Commission should establish a stricter monitoring mechanism to assess the degrees of compliance across the EU. There should be no hesitation in launching infringement procedures against those states demonstrating a consistent lack of progress.

Finally, while strengthening access to formal care will solve some problems, it also presents gender equality risks. As women outsource care responsibilities to reduce their workload, this work will fall upon the shoulders of other women working in the paid care sector, experiencing the oft-inherent low pay and precarious working conditions.

While outsourcing the burden of unpaid care may ease inequalities between women and men within the same household, it does nothing to tackle wider gender inequalities in society. A deeper reassessment of the norms associated with care – in terms of pay, conditions and, vitally, responsibilities – is required. Each of us has a responsibility to undertake such a reassessment. Otherwise, even with EU investment, a Care Strategy and a fully implemented Work-Life Balance Directive, a ‘gender-equal Europe’ will remain nothing more than an aspiration.

Danielle Brady is a Junior Policy Analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme.

Laura Rayner is a Policy Analyst in the Social Europe and Well-Being programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] The dependency ratio relates to the number of children (0-14 years old) and older persons (65 years or over) to the working-age population (15-64 years old).

Photo credits:

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten