Beyond a ‘glass wall’: women address invisible barriers to economic empowerment

Gender, Inequality, Livelihoods

Women’s heavy and unequal share of care work often goes unspoken and unrecognised creating an invisible barrier for women’s empowerment. Here, Thalia Kidder introduces a series of infographics illustrating the demands of care and why this needs to be a part of the development agenda.  

Why don’t enough women benefit and lead in development initiatives, or take up the economic opportunities that are designed for them?  A few exceptional women do, but for too many women, progress appears held back by invisible barriers.  Like negative social norms, and gender-based violence, of course, and lack of assets and education.  But there’s also something considered so normal and natural that women themselves don’t often name it:  women’s heavy and unequal responsibility for caring for people and housework.
It’s work.  Often confused with leisure (‘having fun cooking and being with the kids’?), care has rarely been on the development agenda. Complaints about the ‘normal’ everyday activities of women and girls washing clothes and cooking do not tend to be seen as problems of rights to be addressed by development initiatives.

The other confusion is when care is misnamed ‘women’s burden’.  Care is not a burden, it’s a social good. We want more quality care of persons, and affirm the right of women and men to give and to receive care.  But so far, women do provide most of the care work, and this becomes an invisible limit in each day and each decade, on their ability to empower themselves. A glass wall.

So, how do we make the glass wall visible?

Advocacy based on this quantitative evidence meant we had a powerful argument to persuade and negotiate

Oxfam’s infographics on care aim to help the discussions with colleagues, allies and policy-makers to see heavy and unequal care in a way that is compelling for their work.  Reports from UNRISD on care and national time-use surveys enable policy advocates to show that in order for women to achieve equality in income and paid work, women’s unpaid care work must be reduced and redistributed. The national surveys showed up to
2/3 of women’s work hours were unpaid, while men were paid for 60-90% of their hours working.

We also need local statistics that are meaningful and relevant for our project and our context.   Local estimates of time use, developed by focus groups of men and women in Oxfam’s programmes in Bangladesh, Honduras and elsewhere, have galvanised their energy and commitment to advocate for technology, infrastructure and services from governments. Oxfam’s Rapid Care-Analysis helped people see things differently: 

“Our time-use numbers are incredibly important. Advocacy based on this quantitative evidence, even estimates, meant we had a powerful argument to persuade and negotiate, whether in the home, the community or with the government”. Oxfam staff, Copan, Honduras. 

“Participants struggled at first to think of ways to connect family-provided care to development, to human rights and governance. For how does doing laundry become a problem of the government when it is dealing with more pressing issues such as corruption, a failing economy, or conflict resolution? It was only when participants realized how equipment, services and basic public infrastructure reduce the difficulty of performing care work that they believed in the connection. The RCA brought the discussion of care outside the threshold of the houses. As a result, basic services such
as water and electricity were at the top of the needs expressed to reduce excessive care work. Zahria Mapandi, AMDF, Lanao del Sur, Philippines, July 2014.

How does doing laundry become a problem of the government?

We need better approaches, better measurement and more evidence about ‘what works’ to make change in care.

Last month, Oxfam and partners launched a new three -year programme ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care’ (WE-Care): Building Evidence for Advocacy.  Women’s empowerment programmes in nine countries are doing these rapid analyses of care. They will invite others to meetings to develop their priority issues into innovative strategies: labour-saving technologies combined with communications to change attitudes about gender roles, and investments in water, energy and services to make care tasks less arduous.  The programme is funded by the
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for six countries, with funds from DFID and other donors for others.  

How will we know what works? 

Oxfam’s WE-Care researchers have developed a household-level survey on care to monitor outcomes. In a year’s time, we expect to know more about what works – and what doesn’t – to reduce poor women’s hours of care work, to increase access to infrastructure and care services, to increase men’s and boys’ share of care, and household investments in time- and labour-saving equipment. We plan more infographics to help share these lessons. 

We aim to build a vision of women’s empowerment making visible the glass wall, and seeing beyond it.  Join us!

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Infographics on care

‘Heavy and unequal care’ responsibilities are a significant and fundamental driver of poverty and gender inequality which can and must be addressed in development programmes. The images below link to a series of infographics developed to convey four key messages about care work.

Who works more?

What did we do this week?

What do we think about care?

What can we do?

   Who works more?     What did you do today?     What we think about care? What can we do?


Author: Thalia Kidder
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.