How can care policy contribute to gender equality?

How can care policy contribute to gender equality? A new book outlines how a partnership model might be more realistic for the UK than a more radical approach.

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British attitudes to care work hinder radical change when it comes to gender equality, according to a new book.

The book, What works in improving gender equality by Kirstein Rummery, Craig McAngus and Alcuin Edwards, says that those involved in childcare and elder care, from policymakers to practitioners, see these as the most significant barrier to improving gender equality. 

It states: “By far the most common issue raised by the stakeholders was that of culture. By this, they meant attitudes and values held by policymakers 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.”

The focus is on realism in the face of different policy debates, with the Scottish context [what happens if Scotland becomes independent] being a significant part of the debate, given two of the authors are based at the University of Stirling.

The book begins by discussing what is meant by gender equality. It says using men as the norm in equality discussions is problematic and ignores gender issues around the type of work women do, how they do it and why, for instance, occupational segregation. The book sums this dilemma up by reference to the question: “Do we try to make women equal to men, or do we try to accept that they are different and try to change the way in which they are valued?”

Gender equality, says the book, is highly linked to who does the childcare as well as access to quality, affordable childcare.

Its focus is on addressing gender inequality through childcare and elder care. That includes the low pay associated with care work.

A comparative approach

Taking a comparative approach, the book looks at two different approaches to care: the universal model and the partnership model.

For the universal model, it looks at the Nordic countries of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden which all have gender equality at the heart of their constitutional framework and policy values and have high levels of state involvement in the provision of or commissioning of childcare. While there is no one Nordic model, the book describes a set of commonalities, including how families see themselves as working in partnership with the state and how there is no stigma attached to receiving universally available services.

The partnership model, prevalent in Germany and the Netherlands, is also discussed, for instance, Germany’s reimbursement of care labour through cash payments which has been criticised for encouraging lower paid women to stay out of the labour market for longer, creating a bigger divide between them and higher paid women as well as men.

The book’s authors say the UK, with its neoliberal policy framework and its commitment to flexibility and choice, fits the partnership model, where communities and the market play a significant role in providing formal care services, more easily than the universal model. Although the authors recognise that the universal model enables more substantial, radical progress on gender equality, they believe there is not the political appetite for it and that cultural attitudes to state involvement in care provision are “very entrenched and gendered” in the UK, with care seen as a ‘private’ matter. They state: “Although it achieves lower improvements in gender equality and child equality it is much more achievable within the current UK policy.” They say this is probably even the case in the face of the kind of huge social shocks that Brexit and Covid have wrought.

The book presents a detailed analysis of what works well for whom and why and concludes that, when it comes to fairness for women, the partnership model provides the best outcomes in terms of transferability to different welfare contexts, although the universal model brings better outcomes for women and children when it comes to childcare [although not long-term care].

*What works in improving gender equality is published by Policy Press.

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