The Gendered Nature of Care


By Aashna Bhatia


Up until the late 70’s, “carework” was something that was never challenged or critiqued as it was thought to be something that was “naturalised” or “inherent” to the female world of mothers, daughters, sisters and female servants. But since then, women’s gendered responsibility for care work and the gendered implications of it have become a key topic in feminist research.

This “labour of love” is more often than not marginalised from main economic analysis which negates the role of unpaid household labour in the economy.

The gendered nature of care is due to a lot of reasons, some of which I aim to explain in the due course of this article.

The first reason for the over-representation of women and the gendered nature of care-work is due to stereotypical gender roles and discriminatory social institutions.

Around the world, exclusively women, do more caring for others than others do for them. Think mothers, nanny, nurses. The major chunk of care is usually given by women worldwide. Approximately 1.45 million people work in the adult social care sector in England, and with 82 % of these being women the sector is a significant contributor to the gender pay gap. In addition to this, formal social work, or paid social work is often characterised by poor working conditions, long hours, time pressure, lack of career progression, absence of formal training and high levels of staff turnover.

Gender roles shape the division of labour within households and highlight the difference between sexes. According to Kari Waerness, a Norwegian sociologist, such an unequal exchange between equally able-bodied people, is an effect of skewered gender power structures in the society. This “othering” of women, based on their biology, has been repeated throughout history to steer women clear of important social and political issues. Maleness is then equated to Individuality and the perceived value of work between both genders is huge. This renders most women powerless and restrained to “care” rather than in the “service” sphere.

There seems to be a clear demarcation between the norm and the exclusion which is perfectly explained by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí, a Nigerian feminist scholar. She says, “Women are defined in relation to men, the norm. Women are those who do not have a penis; those who do not have power; those who cannot participate in the public arena” and thus bear the brunt of most paid and unpaid care work.

Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí , a Nigerian feminist scholar

Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí, a Nigerian feminist scholar

Secondly, even when a lot of economic policies aim to free women from the burden of unpaid care work and enable them to become wage-earners, what it essentially does is shift the same burden to poorly paid, immigrant women of colour. What this does is that it shifts the burden from disadvantaged but slightly financially privileged women to more disadvantaged and women who come from no privilege at all. At an intersection of gender and race, the weight is thus taken slightly off the gender variable to put is on race, class and economic disparity instead. For single mothers or women in lower income households,all it does is add an additional layer of delegation and coordination to the hands of the now working woman.

Lastly, the over-representation of women in care work can be attributed to politics of representation and sexual difference. The notion of gender as a sexual difference and its derivative notions—women’s culture, mothering, feminine writing, femininity, etc. —have now become a limitation, some thing of a liability to feminist thought. This is why gender has become a product of representation and upholds the burden of the same. As women, we en-gender ourselves into the sex-gender system where we start defining and limiting our own boundaries in addition to the ones placed by society.

This process has been theoretically defined by Althusser using the word “Interpellation”, “the process whereby a social representation is accepted and absorbed by an individual as her (or his) own representation, and so becomes, for that individual, real, even though it is in fact imaginary.”

In conclusion, it is important to realise that paid or unpaid care work is a universal issue that affects women all over the world, regardless of their social, economic or political status. Gender inequality is the missing link in the analysis of gender pay gaps and over representation of women in care work and there seems to be a dire need to stabilise gender roles, balance power structures and introduce quotas for proper representation of women in the work force for quality jobs. Without intervention, current standards of care will fall, availability of care workers will descend to a downward slope and the whole noble cause of care work will hence suffer.



Writer for We Hate Pink

Masters student at London School of Economics, pursuing a degree in Gender, Media and Culture.

Aashna is writing about gender, media representation and trends. Focus on cultural practices across different countries and the psychology behind politics