What Works to Improve Gender Equality? International best practice in childcare and long-term care policy

This article was originally published on Kirstein Rummery’s blog www.femacademic.com

The following is an extract from chapter 6 from Kirstein Rummery’s new book.

Chapter 6: What are the issues with care policy and gender equality? Views from the stakeholders


What are the key issues and problems regarding care policy and gender equality from the perspective of policy makers and practitioners? We need to understand this in order to ascertain which, if any, of the policies and models discussed in this book will solve them and lead to better gender equality outcomes. We also need to understand which policies – and which features of the policies – would be amenable to transferring into a different context.

Methods and data

Interviews with 30 stakeholders. Participant responses were anonymised and an anonymous participant code was generated using a number that follows letters allocated as a code to their stakeholder group. Interview participants’ stakeholder groups (and codes) include civil servants working in the Scottish Government on childcare (SCOC) and long-term care (SCOL) third sector organisations concerned with gender equality (THIG) children and childcare (THIC) and carers and long-term care (THIL), elected politicians and activists (POL), trade unionists (TRA), civil servants in the Welsh Assembly (WAL), academics (ACA) and third sector stakeholders outside of Scotland (THIUK). Interviews were transcribed, inductively and thematically analysed using NVivo, and the validity of the findings checked through a series of events and discussions with stakeholders who had not taken part in the interviews. The three themes that emerged from the data as being the most pressing for stakeholders were: cultural issues to do with gender equality and the role of the state; governance (ie which level of the state or wider society should take responsibility for care policy); and the links between care policy and gender equality more generally.

Cultural issues: attitudes towards gender equality and the state

By far the most common issue raised by the stakeholders was that of culture. By this, they meant attitudes and values held by policy-makers and by the general population. There was concern that these attitudes were a serious impediment to the adoption of care policies that could lead to improved gender equality.

Attitudes to gender equality and care work

The need to rebalance ideas about paid work and unpaid caring/parenting across the genders, and the structural changes that this would mean, was noted by several participants:

‘In terms of gender equality and rights-based stuff, if you commit to that, then one of the things would be around parenting, around being a child-friendly nation, what does that mean? Well maybe what it means is we stop doing parent classes during working time without giving men the right to time off to attend them.’ (THIC1)

The gendered norms that underpinned women’s care work were noted, as well as the limitations that put on women’s lives and choices:

‘Women bear the brunt of caring responsibilities, they bring up the next generation, they can’t walk away from their responsibilities, men can walk away from their responsibilities at any point, women can’t.’ (POL1)

The cultural significance of gendered expectations around care, and how policies both reproduce and reinforce those expectations and teach them to the next generation was a concern for participants:

‘It’s not just about access to the labour market and childcare, it’s to do with the messages we give from day one of our children’s lives and to each other as adults about whose job it is to parent and care.’ (THIC2)

Participants noted the link between gendered expectations of care and the undervaluing of women’s paid work, which contributes to gender inequality through the gender pay gap:

‘Childcare, child-rearing, in general, is just deemed to be women’s work … You need to take the stigma out of men taking time out. So although the research tells us men do want to spend more time with their children, they are not. If more men were able to do that then there would be a wider recognition about the value that we attach to care work in particular because it’s like, you know, it comes as second nature to women because they’re used to caring, they’re used to doing this which is the premise of all the undervaluing of women’s work that involves cooking, cleaning, caring, well, they’re doing all that anyway so there’s no point remunerating them fairly.’ (THIG1)

It was noted how a strong cultural attachment to gendered norms of caring could be implicit, rather than explicit, in policy, and nevertheless exert a powerful influence over expectations and policy developments:

‘There’s not much of a normative discussion … we are quite liberal, in the sense that there isn’t ‘all mothers have to stay at home’, but there is also not particularly strong support in society for the employment of mothers, particularly mothers of small children, so I think there is still a bit of mummy culture in the sense of why shouldn’t mums be home with their kids at least until they start school? Quite a bit of reluctance to actually even talk about work and particularly full-time work of mothers of smaller children … quite a strong sense still that mums should be home.’ (ACA1)

The negative impact of gendered stereotypes and norms associated with caring on men as well as women was a key theme for many participants:

‘Gender equality as a concept is important because it recognises that the way things stand, although men are privileged within the system, that privilege comes with disadvantages as well, so men who are minded to do care work will experience the same low pay, poverty wages and lack of regard as women who do care work. Men who want to substantially engage themselves with their family life will find that culturally unacceptable within their workplace.’ (THIG2)

Cultural norms and practices that have become accepted through gendered approaches to childcare also translated over the life course to women being more likely to provide long-term care, and also to combine caring with working:

‘There’s always been a higher proportion of women providing [family] care … with elderly parents it’s more likely to be the daughter that does that more in-depth care … men are more likely to give up work entirely whereas women are more likely to be able to maintain part-time work alongside a caring role … that possibly reflects that women have already done that part-time work looking after children.’ (THIL1)

Some participants drew a link between cultural norms and the political discourse around policy options, which placed limits on the kind of approaches to childcare that were considered to be politically acceptable:

‘Scotland is a very female country … it’s disproportionately women who are portrayed with a mum with a kid doing very traditional female things, it’s always that middle-class white woman with a child fulfilling that kind of role, we want to support you as mothers, and then after that, we’ll still kind of support you in the workplace.’ (POL2)

Gendered norms also affected the options for part-time or full-time paid work available to men, and thus the nature of their involvement in unpaid care work:

‘It’s rarer for a man to give up work to care for family members, it’s all about who’s the breadwinner, it’s a cultural thing and also it’s a societal thing and there’s the nature and nurture type of thing about it … women will be the ones who are taking on that role in the family.’ (THIL2).

There was an explicit link drawn between the involvement of men in caring, particularly in paid childcare, and the cultural attitudes that support the gendered division of caring labour:

‘It’s only when we can make early years provision an attractive place to work, making it a requirement for men, that we are going to see a substantial difference in attitudes.’ (THIC3)

Finally, many participants also drew an explicit link between the cultural expectation of gendered caring and how women’s labour more generally was undervalued by society:

‘There’s insufficient value attached to unpaid care work, we’ve attached insufficient value to what women primarily do in the home, often on top of a full-time job doing something else, it means the whole conversation leads into care not having a financial value attached to it.’ (TRA1)

Attitudes to state provision of welfare, childcare and long-term care services

It was not only cultural attitudes to gendered divisions in caring and work that were perceived to affect the acceptability of certain policy approaches. Participants also pointed out that norms and perceptions that were concerned with the role that the state should play in the provision of welfare generally fed into ideas about how acceptable state intervention in the form of childcare and long-term care policies were, both to society generally and to policy-makers in particular:

‘There’s a sort of political and cultural thing there about how do we all buy into this … but we’re a long way from having that conversation.’ (TRA1)

Normative and cultural values also were embedded into different government departments that would need to work together to develop appropriate policies. For example, whilst the evidence indicates that social services and education need to collaborate to develop effective childcare policies, entrenched differing values and ways of working were perceived as being obstacles to this happening:

‘Political priorities are the biggest barrier around cultural questions about the way we do things. I think we’ve got into some quite entrenched ways of working and thinking about some of our social services and education, there are a number of cultural barriers built into that process.’ (THIC3)

Participants raised questions over whether the UK was prepared to pay higher taxes in order to secure better public services, particularly in the case of long-term care for older people:

‘We have to ask ourselves as a society what do we value and what are we prepared to pay for. Homecare is generally for older people and we’re just not prepared to pay as a country for that kind of service.’ (SCOL1)

‘Whether Scotland is a country that would say we are happy to pay significantly higher taxes if it means we’re going to have a decent income if we need to care, but I am not certain we are.’ (THIL1)

The idea that taxpayer’s money was spent on ‘residual’ welfare for stigmatised groups, rather than a sense of having shared universal payments and services, was felt by participants to be a powerful cultural norm regarding state-led policies:

‘In the UK there is a strong sense of them and us, them: that is the state and the civil servants and all the people that don’t work hard and us: we’re the hard-working people being robbed by the state.’ (ACA1)

The cultural sense that the state should not be ‘interfering’ in private lives was particularly obvious when it came to attitudes towards the provision of childcare:

‘I’d get a stupid argument at a meeting I was at a while ago where they were saying ‘well we don’t think children should be left from eight in the morning til eight at night’ and all we’re saying is the facility should be open.’ (TRA1)

Participants pointed out that the political culture of the UK – being a predominantly neo-liberal rather than universal/social democratic welfare state regardless of the political party in power – limited the kinds of arguments that could be used in favour of increased provision of childcare:

‘Everything’s gone very much to the right … All the childcare policies in the UK are about free-market principles and not about transformational change.’ (THIC4)

Finally, participants voiced the concern than not understanding or valuing the human cost of providing unpaid care was leading to an unwillingness to provide state-funded long-term care services:

‘I think we have a general empathy towards folk that provide family care but I don’t think there’s a real understanding … I am not sure that even within local authorities that there is a true understanding of the unpaid carers, the impact on them.’ (THIL2)

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