From Babies to the Elderly, Most Carework Is Done by Women

Shahrashoub Razavi, chief of research and data for U.N. Women, speaking at the Global Carework Summit at UMass Lowell Image by Tory Germann
Shahrashoub Razavi, chief of research and data for U.N. Women, delivered the opening keynote.

By Katharine Webster

We all need care at some point in our lives – as babies and children, in hospitals and when we’re dying. And most of that care is provided by women working for low or no wages as family members, nannies, day care providers and health aides.

It’s time to change that, said Shahrashoub Razavi, chief of research and data for U.N. Women, who gave the opening keynote speech at the Global Carework Summit at UMass Lowell last week. 

“Care is mired in such intense inequalities, both in who receives care and who provides care,” Razavi said. “It’s contrary to notions of equality and social justice.”

Allison Hansell of the SEIU 775 Benefits Group, Asst. Prof. Fumilayo Showers of Central Connecticut State and another woman listen while UML History Prof. Robert Forrant talks Image by Tory Germann
The conference brought together labor activists and academics, including Allison Hansell, left, of the SEIU 775 Benefits Group, and Asst. Prof. of Sociology Fumilayo Showers, center, from Central Connecticut State University.
The Global Carework Summit, a three-day conference, was organized by Assoc. Prof. Mignon Duffy, chairwoman of the Sociology Department, and the Carework Network, an international group of scholars and activists. It was hosted by UMass Lowell’s Center for Women and Work, an interdisciplinary center for faculty who research gender inequality in the workplace. Several graduate students also helped with the conference and attended the sessions.

The summit attracted labor activists, policy analysts and scholars from diverse academic disciplines and countries, including Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Korea. They shared research and discussed a broad range of issues, from effective labor organizing strategies to the migration of nurses and other care workers from developing countries to wealthy nations. 

Duffy, whose research largely focuses on the role of gender and race in who performs carework, said she was excited to have so many researchers and activists together in one place.

Jennifer Craft Morgan, assistant professor of gerontology at Georgia State University, and UMass Lowell Sociology Department Chairwoman Mignon Duffy Image by Tory Germann
Assoc. Prof. Mignon Duffy, right, with Jennifer Craft Morgan, assistant professor of gerontology at Georgia State University.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to inform and inspire each other across disciplines, international borders and cultures,” she said.

Razavi argued for policies that give men and women equal opportunities to care for family members – and said that part of democratizing care is making sure that quality options are available for paid care as well. Using the United States as an example, she said that government standards and support for early childhood care would work better than the current system of near-total reliance on the free market.

“Low-income families fare worse in access and quality of care, and single women spend more for day care than married couples. Given that most mothers must return to work before their child’s first birthday, you could make a strong case for universal early child care.”

She praised developments in Latin American countries such as Chile, which offers free early child care to the 60 percent of its population with the lowest incomes, and Uruguay, which is retraining domestic servants as skilled child care workers. 

She also pointed to promising changes in Japan and Korea: Both countries have strong traditions of daughters and daughters-in-law caring for aging parents, but pressure from younger working women and feminists has led to mandatory, government-subsidized long-term care insurance.

UML University Professor Robert Forrant leads a walking tour of Lowell at the opening of the Global Carework Summit Image by Tory Germann
History Prof. Robert Forrant led a historical walking tour of Lowell for conference participants from around the globe.
The closing keynote panel revolved around a book by University of Minnesota Political Science Prof. Joan Tronto, “Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality and Justice.” 

“People are disenchanted with democratic government because they don’t understand how it touches their lives,” Tronto said in an interview. “Care is more important than economic production to human beings.”

She proposes that instead of letting the market decide who is responsible for care – generally family members, women, minorities and immigrants – we should instead start with a democratic model that requires everyone to do their part. The result, she said, would be better care, a more caring society and a more humane and responsive political system – as well as greater public involvement in and support for democracy.

The overwhelming majority of the conference attendees, like the subjects of their research, were women. One of the few men to attend, University of Barcelona Prof. Jesus M. de Miguel, said his research is focused on end-of-life care, especially on better educating medical students to care for patients who are terminally ill.

“Medical doctors are not paid to talk to patients or to hold their hands while they die. They’re paid for interventions,” he said. “Death and dying is a taboo, but we need to plan ahead and we need to be more rational about it. You can learn how to provide better care, from breaking the bad news to caring for the family.”