Dr Juanita Elias from the Politics and International Studies Department at the University of Warwick, explains why care for older people in the UK has become a gender issue, with women in particular taking on the burden of a social care system in crisis.
Care of older people is a gender issue from a number of different perspectives. Most obviously, the adult social care workforce is overwhelmingly female with those working in direct care-providing roles making up over 85% of workers.
When it comes to unpaid family carers the picture is different – many men, often frail and elderly themselves, are the sole carers for their partners. But at the same time, women in younger age groups are more likely to take on multiple caring roles. It’s not uncommon for women in their 50s and 60s to be caring for an older parent as well as providing care for grandchildren – a situation that can have significant health implications for carers.
These ‘gendered norms of caring’ (that is, society’s association of women with caring roles and the fact that women are the group most likely to have to step in and care) are informing policy thinking in this area. Cuts in social care spending are made possible, simply because there is an assumption that there is always someone who is able to step in and cover the services that the state is failing to provide.
Cuts to social care budgets have significant impacts for those doing the work of caring. Undervaluing care work is reflected in the low pay, and increasingly low morale, that is endemic to the sector. Addressing low pay would have a positive impact on the gender pay gap and valuing workers, not just through pay but also by creating professional career pathways, would also serve to increase morale, workforce stability and the quality of care available.
Practical steps to better-support unpaid carers are also needed. For example, better protections for workers who need to take time off to care for older relatives, or better support available to family members trying to navigate the complexities of the social care system.
Over the winter of 2016/17, the ongoing problems facing social care have been presented almost exclusively as a crisis for the NHS. Missing from this account of the ‘care crisis’ is an appreciation of the problems, stresses and strains experienced in the daily lives of the many women, and men, who provide paid and unpaid care services. In the current climate, carers – professional or unpaid – are increasingly expected to do more and more as the state does less.
This, however, is woefully short-sighted, as women are fully paid up members of the workforce. There is little acknowledgement that women’s paid work will become increasingly difficult to reconcile with unpaid caring responsibilities and will also increase the costs of health and well-being of women carers who engage in a double burden of care work and paid employment.
Full details of the gender bias of social care can be found in Towards a New Deal for Care and Carers, a report put together by the Universities of Warwick, Sheffield, the Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett society.
Juanita Elias is Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Juanita’s research explores the way in which gender relations and identities operate and are reproduced within a range of political economic settings.
The full report can be viewed at: