The workshop ‘Who Cares? Gender, Care Provision, and Inequality’, put on by the Centre of Gender History at the University of Glasgow, was a follow up event to the WWV workshop that took place in April. Using a similar structure of bringing together care practitioners, academics and policy makers, the workshop addressed issues around the gendered assumptions and implications on the paid and unpaid care economy.
An emerging idea, highlighted by Professor Jane Mair of the University of Glasgow, was the issue of a new stereotype of independent, self-sufficient individuals, which ignores the care commitments that large numbers of society hold. This idea that ‘you can have it all’, implies everyone should be able to have a high profile, highly paid career and live exciting lives while simultaneously and effortlessly raising a happy family. Professor Nicole Busby showed images put out by the EU of women, working while preparing food or holding a young child. While this is a lifestyle choice that people should be able to make, participants at the workshop seemed to think it is not one we should be expecting, or imposing on women. It suggests that those who choose caring for children, elderly or ill relatives, over a career, as a higher priority, or see it as just un-reconcilable with working life, as somehow doing it wrong. In this model, where is the place of care?
This conversation echoes the individualist/ relational arguments that have coloured feminism since the time of Mary Wollstonecraft; do we advocate complete, uncompromising equality with men, or do we create policy and perceptions that cater to ‘differences’?
Recent feminist thought has obviously nuanced this debate significantly, acknowledging individual experience and ‘difference’ between all people, rather than either side of a defined gender line. Particularly differences in experience that have been formed through institutionalised discrimination against certain groups, women of course being one. However, the persistence of this ‘have it all’ stereotype, worryingly seems to miss these ideas.
It was suggested that this stereotype seemed to echo the male breadwinner model, of an autonomous individual who ‘has it all’ at the expense of their care obligations being fulfilled by others: men who achieve high status careers while their wife cares for the family; wealthy families who succeed in their jobs while their children are cared for by others; etc. This ideal sees care as a burden or a disadvantage, and this is reflected in the legal terminology. Perhaps women, and in fact everyone, should be striving towards an ideal where care is acknowledged as an essential foundation of society and valued respectively.
This idea that care work, both paid and unpaid, is undervalued in society, resonated throughout the workshop, with all the speakers addressing issues ranging from the low pay given to care workers, to the lack of quantitative value for the care work done in relationships. In all the cases looked at, women were disproportionately the ones fulfilling the role of carer.
Later discussions raised the question of the feasibility of commercialised care; whether the role of supporting vulnerable people should be assessed through an economic lens or whether we need a new way to value care.
Speakers agreed on the need for interdisciplinary, intergenerational and interdependent thought on care work, so we can provide support for vulnerable people that fulfils their needs, giving them respect and dignity, without negatively impacting the care giver’s mental or financial situation.
Maybe we need to re-think our perception of what it really means to ‘have it all’.
Women, Work and Value Intern at the University of Glasgow