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UNDERVALUED AND INVISIBLE OP-ED

Gender, care and climate change — why they are connected

Gender, care and climate change — why they are connected
One of the main reasons that we undervalue care work is because it is naturalised as “women’s work”, and largely done on an unpaid basis. (Photo: iStock)

Society places little value on care because it is unpaid work, mainly done by women. It is not factored into calculations of the GDP of a country, and neither is the critical task of protecting our fragile environment. This has led to underinvestment in care services, which exposes society to dire climate change and health risks.

We face two crises that highlight why we should value care more.  

The first, which has disrupted our lives and starkly exposed the inequalities within our country and across the globe, is Covid-19. Since this pandemic emerged and spread across the world, it has become apparent that we have undervalued and underinvested in care. It became clear that we had too few people working in health services and related occupations. Further, with insufficient income support and almost 40% of the global population without access to adequate healthcare coverage, studies showed that care responsibilities in households during the global lockdown period disproportionately fell on women compared with men.  

The conditions of the pandemic also made clear that it is not the highly paid jobs in finance and banking that are essential for life, but the health and care workers, paid and unpaid, whose labour is critical for protecting lives and sustaining livelihoods in our society.  

There is a danger that, as we return to our lives outside the pandemic, we will lose sight of this important lesson. Why is it that society underinvests so dramatically in care services, exposing everyone to such high risk?  

One of the main reasons we undervalue care work is because it is naturalised as “women’s work”, and largely done on an unpaid basis. This is most apparent when we consider how we measure the economy. 

The unpaid work that we do to care for ourselves, our parents, our children and our community is not included in calculations of the value of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country.  

The GDP calculations that we use to calculate national output include only paid work. The system that we use for these estimations requires that a price be placed on output that is counted in the GDP, and the argument that unpaid work has no price is used to exclude it from the estimation. In our view, this is a weak argument, since there are ways in which we can get a price for this work, even if it is unpaid. 

Women’s work 

Feminists have long argued against narrow valuations of care in the economy and for the recognition of the important role that work typically performed by women plays in the reproduction of society and economies around the world.  

Thus, feminist economics offers several alternative models to rethink economics, its core beliefs, theories and policies. Its approach is that the centrality of self-interest, scarcity and competition in economic theory neglects women’s interests and makes it difficult to redistribute power and wellbeing in society. A unifying theme in feminist work, therefore, is to challenge the distinctions made between the formal and informal economy, paid and unpaid work, market and non-market activities, and productive and reproductive labour. 

We can get a good idea of the distribution of unpaid care work across the globe and its true value with time-use surveys. According to a United Nations study, on average, across the world, women’s allocation of time to unpaid care work is about threefold that of men’s.  

Similarly, the work that women do in the informal economy to sustain livelihoods and build resilient economies is often invisible and undervalued.  

The International Labour Organization has found that 61% of the world’s workers are found in the informal economy. Further, while there has been an increase in female labour force participation globally, women are more likely to be in more vulnerable sectors of the informal economy, for example as temporary or part-time workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, or as contributing family workers — usually unpaid. Yet discussions about employment and economic output place little value on this work, partly because women disproportionately find work in the informal economy.  

Climate crisis

The second crisis we are dealing with is that posed by the climate crisis. This, too, is about what we value. 

The problems of climate change are partly the result of us placing little or no value on caring for our natural environment. We have known for a long time that the burning of fossil fuels gives rise to greenhouse gases that damage our physical environment and that this will lead to rising temperatures, which will impose huge costs, especially on poor and marginalised communities. Yet, across the world, but especially in the wealthiest countries, this lack of care for the environment continues unabated.  

Our economic models are still based on growing the economy by “exploiting” natural resources. However, certain ecological economists argue that an economy predicated on endless growth is ecologically unsustainable, because it places increasing pressure on resource consumption and environmental quality. Further, measures such as GDP do not distinguish activities that improve social welfare from those that harm or have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of society.  

Negative externalities 

Part of the reason for this lack of care for the environment is that corporations and individuals that benefit from these activities are able to reap the profits of these activities while passing the long-term costs of the damage to the environment on to others. We refer to this as negative externalities. In essence, the problem is that companies undervalue caring for the environment and pass this cost on to all of society and to future generations. 

Our understanding of the “negative externalities” of air pollution and environmental destruction has improved, and we now understand the environmental and social costs of certain industries. However, understanding the impact is not the same as accounting for it. Negative externalities have increased the burden of care within households, which must manage the impacts on health and access to resources for survival.  

Studies show that the lack of care for the environment places a disproportionate burden on women. Due to inequalities in access to information, mobility, resources (such as land) and training, women are more vulnerable to climate disasters. Pandemics such as Covid-19 are likely to occur more often due to the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats.  

This places an additional burden on women.  

Data show that women spent about three hours more per day on childcare than men during the lockdown when schools and pre-school centres were closed.  

Women’s care responsibilities place them at the frontline of climate change impacts and adaptation practices, because women often bear responsibility for securing food, water and fuel for the household. South Africa is already a water-scarce country, and certain areas are experiencing more erratic rainfall and prolonged drought due to climate change. This makes water access more difficult, which affects health, sanitation and food security. While women often do this work, it is also done by children and men, depending on the context. 

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Floods, such as those in KwaZulu-Natal earlier in 2022, also affect different groups unevenly, leaving black women, in particular, extremely vulnerable.  

The consequences of not valuing care are serious. In the case of unpaid work, the undervaluing of care places a disproportionate burden on — women who do much of this work, because we don’t include this care work in our GDP calculations and underinvest in these activities. Moreover, when governments cut social expenditure during times of economic crisis, as our government is currently doing, it is largely women’s unpaid care work that fills the gaps.  

In other words, this unpaid work is equivalent to a tax that women pay to society.  

We therefore need an economy that places care — for ourselves and our communities, and for our environment — at the centre. This requires us to develop a more gender-aware approach to the economy and to economic policies, which would fully value women’s work and also fully cost the damage and harm that the exploitation of the physical environment causes for humans and all forms of life, both currently and for future generations.  

Making these costs visible will contribute to improved economic, social and environmental policy. A good place to start would be to ensure that we recognise the deficiencies in our existing valuation systems and give proper value to work that is done disproportionately by women.  

Stats SA is supposed to carry out time-use surveys every five years, but the last was done in 2010. It is time to increase the frequency of our time-use surveys that capture unpaid care work in order to inform policy. DM/MC 

This article was first published in Econ3x3

Imraan Valodia is an economist and the director of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Climate, Sustainability and Inequality at Wits University. Siviwe Mhlana and Julia Taylor are researchers at the SCIS.

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