Sociologist Mignon Duffy Specializes in Careworkers

Sociology Chairwoman Mignon Duffy, right, with Psychology Prof. Meg Bond, director of the Center for Women and Work at UMass Lowell Image by Meghan Moore
Sociology Chairwoman Mignon Duffy, right, with University Prof. Meg Bond, director of the Center for Women and Work.

By Katharine Webster

Assoc. Prof. Mignon Duffy researches the often-invisible armies of careworkers who tend to children and the elderly, the sick and the disabled.

Now she’s helping to guide international policy on families – specifically, the social services that support them – as part of a committee of experts advising the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

It’s a dream come true for Duffy, chairwoman of the Sociology Department and an associate of the university’s Center for Women and Work. She is working on policy recommendations and a report for U.N. Women with fellow committee members who have expertise in social protections, human rights, the informal care sector and countries with little or no social service infrastructure.

“It’s the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done. This is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do – to be in the room for these high-level conversations about policy,” she says. “My role is to make sure that as the committee considers these social and public services, they are cognizant of the human beings who provide the services, not just the residents or citizens receiving them.”

The majority of both paid and unpaid careworkers are women, making their working conditions and wages – or lack of pay – a women’s rights issue, Duffy says. 

In industrialized countries where women are close to half of the workforce, they comprise 80 to 90 percent of paid careworkers. Even in countries where women are only 10 percent of the paid work force, they are generally half of all careworkers, she says.

“Every care sector in every country is predominantly women, and carework jobs generally pay less than other jobs requiring the same level of education and experience,” Duffy says. “The quality of carework jobs and wages really matters for women’s equity and economic well-being. And where there is less good-quality paid carework available, the burden of unpaid care falls more heavily on women.”

Shahra Razavi, head of research and data at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, speaks at the international Carework Summit at UMass Lowell Image by Tory Wesnofske
Shahrashoub Razavi, U.N. Women's head of research and data, asked Duffy to serve on the experts committee.
Duffy was invited to serve on the committee of experts by Shahrashoub Razavi, chief of research and data for U.N. Women. They met when Razavi gave the keynote address at the Global Carework Summit, a conference organized by Duffy and the Carework Network last year to bring together scholars and labor representatives from around the world.

The 15 members of the U.N. Women experts’ committee met on Long Island for three days of intensive discussions about the role governments can and should play in providing care.

“We’re working on recommendations that are pushing the envelope, but also relevant to countries across a wide range of contexts,” Duffy says. “We’re wrangling with how to hold governments accountable – and to advance, not work against, gender equity.”

A key area of agreement is that governments play a vital role in funding and regulating social services, Duffy says. A strong public sector results in better services, compared to private, for-profit care, she says. 

“The profit motive doesn’t serve the quality of care,” she says. “Low wages and poor working conditions lead to higher turnover, and the quality of care suffers.”

UMass Lowell Sociology Chairwoman Mignon Duffy gives a presentation on her research. Image by Meghan Moore
Duffy is advising the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women about careworkers.
Careworkers and their families also suffer in a ripple effect that can hurt a country’s economic growth, she says.

“In a lot of countries, careworkers, even paid careworkers, are excluded from the formal economy,” she says. “Because of that, the careworkers who are providing these vital social services often don’t qualify to receive them. They’re excluded from social protections and access to services for themselves and their own families. That’s not a sustainable model.”

The work of the expert research group will culminate in a report that will be made available to all U.N. member countries before the 63rd convening of the U.N. Commission on Women in March. Duffy is also co-writing a paper commissioned by U.N. Women that will compare carework in 47 different countries.

Duffy says it’s been fascinating to learn about how multilateral organizations like the United Nations arrive at policies. She has also learned a lot from the other experts on the committee that will inform her teaching, especially the Social Welfare Policy class that she teaches.