Feminist Economics Perspectives on COVID-19: Caring Labor, Care Economy and Gender Equality

Naz Bilecik '22 SEAS
July 21, 2020

On June 10th, 2020, Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul hosted İpek İlkkaracan, Professor of Economics at Istanbul Technical University, for a live webinar titled "Feminist Economics Perspectives on COVID-19: Caring Labor, Care Economy and Gender Equality." The event was moderated by Emel Memiş, Associate Professor at Ankara University in the Department of Economics.

The COVID-19 outbreak has brought unprecedented crises, both financially and in terms of global health. Economists also point to a looming global care crisis, which could deepen the systemic inequalities based on socioeconomic status, gender, and origin. In this conversation, Prof. İlkkaracan and Dr. Memiş examined the economic and social consequences of the pandemic within the framework of gender. They focused on issues that are frequently heard in economic policy discussions such as the care economy, social care services infrastructure, and investments in the care economy for inclusive and sustainable growth.  

Some highlights from the talk include the following:

Prof. İlkkaracan defined the care economy by stating that it consists of services that provide physical, social, and emotional support for groups in need of assistance. She divided the care economy into two segments: paid and unpaid care work. Paid care work includes the health and social services industry, education, and domestic workers. Prof. İlkkaracan noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident that the services provided by the care economy meet very important individual and social needs. According to a study by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the global care workforce includes 381 million workers, which represents 11.5% of total global employment. The report also highlights that two-thirds of this workforce are women. The figures reveal that care work is a significant source of employment throughout the world, especially for women.

An important part of the care economy consists of the unpaid care work carried out in the household. Looking at care work from an economic perspective, it is necessary to investigate the size and value of this economy. Thanks to time-use surveys issued by ILO, it has become possible to express unpaid care work in quantitative terms. Data from 64 countries show that 16.4 billion hours per day are spent in unpaid care work, which corresponds to 2 billion people working eight hours a day. According to ILO’s report, women perform three-fourths of this unpaid care work.

Prof. İlkkaracan and Dr. Memiş discussed the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on paid care work. They highlighted that countries, which had failed to invest in the health care sector, experienced great difficulty in the fight against the virus. During the pandemic, demand for healthcare has increased significantly and the work conditions of healthcare professionals, which constitute a significant part of paid care work employees, became much more difficult both in terms of workplace safety and working hours. Besides the healthcare industry, educational institutions have faced great challenges as they have had to quickly adapt to an online education system, which has deepened the inequalities among children trying to get access to education.

Besides the effects of the pandemic in paid care work, Prof. İlkkaracan and Dr. Memiş also emphasized the overlooked parts of the care economy. They mentioned that feminist economists are trying to bring to attention the increase in unpaid care work in the household during the pandemic. Coronavirus prevention measures, such as social distancing, have led to more time being spent on household labor such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for family members. Prof. İlkkaracan mentioned a survey conducted by KONDA, a research and consultancy company, which investigated the working hours spent in unpaid care work before and after the pandemic in Turkey. The survey revealed that women experienced an increase of over 2 hours a day in time spent performing unpaid care work during the outbreak. On the other hand, men only spent an additional 0.8 hours a day in such work. These figures show that women shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid care work around the globe and measures have to be taken in order to reduce the gender imbalance present in the distribution of care work.

Prof. İlkkaracan also emphasized the importance of investing in the care economy especially during a global health and financial crisis. Strengthening the care services infrastructure would increase the resistance against pandemics such as the coronavirus and protect service providers. According to data from 45 countries, ILO concluded that investments in the care economy have the potential to create nearly 120 million additional jobs by 2030. In addition, creating more funds for care work would promote economic recovery and growth, reduce unemployment, increase labor force participation, and reduce gender and income inequalities. Prof. İlkkaracan concluded the webinar by stating that during this time, expenditure packages are being announced to stimulate the economy in many countries and investing in the care economy sector should be considered a foremost priority.