Global prosperity requires equal division of unpaid care work

Unequal division of unpaid care work is a key barrier to women’s economic justice, writes our founder Cherie Blair CBE KC on the UN's inaugural International Day of Care and Support

Unpaid care and domestic work are critical to our societies and wellbeing. It is essential that we care for our families and maintain our households. This is indeed recognised by the United Nations, which this year declared 29 October as the inaugural International Day of Care and Support. However, the unequal division of this labour is a key barrier to women’s economic justice.

It’s no secret that household chores, childcare and other domestic responsibilities fall disproportionately to women. Entire economies are built on the foundations of this often invisible labour. For women running businesses, the pressure is intensified. Many of the 230,000 women entrepreneurs that we have worked with over the last 15 years at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women tell us of the constant juggling act they must do: taking business calls during school runs and feeding their babies between customers. The stress and exhaustion can be overwhelming and can impact their ability to keep their business afloat, let alone grow it.

Across the world, often due to gender stereotypes, women are critically unsupported when it comes to care, leaving them unable to run their businesses as effectively as they would like – or at all. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has worsened. Last year, our annual survey of women entrepreneurs around the world found that for about half of these women their unpaid care workload had increased since the start of the pandemic, with 41% now carrying out four or more hours a day in addition to running their businesses. Worryingly, almost one in five said that this had undermined the performance or limited the growth of their businesses.

Our previous research also found that some of the most common gender stereotypes women entrepreneurs experience relate to the division of domestic labour, particularly that women should focus more on taking care of family or that men should be the main providers of the household.

Marcia Skervin, who runs a human resources company in Jamaica, spoke to us from her own experience in this area. She said: “It’s difficult to start a business as a single mother who is doing everything. Family care is a totally different thing for women than it is for men. For many women entrepreneurs, if they are not comfortable with the childcare provider for their kids, it will be hard for them to pursue business.”

Care is a fundamental human right - it's high time we recognise it as such.

Having spent my life surrounded by working mothers, and indeed having been one, I know first-hand the vital role that quality, accessible, affordable care plays in enabling women to achieve their full potential in business. This sort of support must be accessible across the board. Care is a fundamental human right – it’s high time we recognise it as such.

Supporting women entrepreneurs to succeed isn’t only a social justice issue, it’s an economic opportunity as well. If women and men participated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by up to 6% – boosting the global economy by $2.5-$5 trillion. It’s clear that until we recognise and redistribute the unpaid care work that holds women entrepreneurs back, we will all of us be missing out.

Addressing this issue requires action at every level of society, including governments, public and private sectors, and individuals. At the Foundation we are doing  our part by providing free childcare for the women we support in Guyana and Nigeria so that they can attend our entrepreneurial skills training sessions without having to worry about their children. Before, many women were keen to attend the trainings, but would have to stay home to look after their children. We’re already seeing this new initiative increase attendance and support more women to build their skills and boost their businesses, and hope to see other organisations follow suit.

We’re also working with CARE International UK to urge governments and policy makers to take action and address the ‘five Rs’ of decent care work – recognise, reduce, redistribute, reward and represent . This requires investment in high-quality care and accessible social services, plus more and better rewarded care jobs, and more inclusive universal social protections. Tackling the gender stereotypes that fuel unequal division of care work in societies and communities is also crucial.

Banks and financial institutions have a role to play as well by increasing women entrepreneurs’ access to finance – something that is all too often unfairly denied, with only 2-10% of commercial bank finance going to women-owned businesses. This will enable women to expand their businesses and be better able to pay for necessary services like childcare. Because care services are more often run by women, this creates a virtuous circle that sees both women’s businesses and the care industry grow mutually across the board – and economies with them.

Let’s commit to bringing our children up to know that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, and that includes at the helm of a business, and that looking after the family and household is just as much the responsibility of men as it is women.

But, of course, individuals too must play their part. After all, whilst gender bias is baked into practices systemically, it is people who hold the stereotypes that create the systems. At the household level, for example, men can start simply by doing their fair share of care work, freeing up women’s time for professional development and business. Let’s commit to bringing our children up to know that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, and that includes at the helm of a business, and that looking after the family and household is just as much the responsibility of men as it is women.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that women entrepreneurs are a powerful tool for change. When women are supported to thrive, they create a better world for all of us. Their businesses fuel economies and provide vital services in their communities and beyond.

We cannot keep ignoring the inequalities that hold women back from running businesses. That’s why, this International Day of Care and Support, I’m calling for change. Together, we can each of us play a role in building caring economies and boosting gender equality in entrepreneurship.

Cherie Blair CBE KC

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Frida Owinga, Founder of Passion to Profit in Kenya