The global pandemic that swept across the world just a few years ago was a grim reminder of the fragility of human lives. Widespread illness and death, economic disruption, mobility restrictions, and lockdowns precipitated by the unabated spread of Covid-19 was shocking, almost unbelievable for many of us.
At its crux, the pandemic sent a stark message about the significance of our health and wellbeing for the functioning of our societies and economies. Ultimately, what contributed disproportionately to our survival during this unprecedented event was “care”.
Care, in this context, refers to the life enhancing labour done “in part as unpaid work by families, friends, and community members, and in part as paid labour by workers such as doctors, nurses, teachers, home healthcare workers, nannies and domestic workers”.
Despite its centrality to our lives, care work is often a complex subject to grapple. How is care work of economic significance? How does care work impact upon individual workers’ lives? What challenges do care workers face globally? And how do all these questions relate to education professionals, who work in a prominent sector of the global care economy?
This short article will address some of these questions, with a global focus on gender and the education sector. This will be further explored in a policy brief, coming later this year.
What is the care economy and why gender matters
Care work refers to the complex web of activities that sustain and reproduce life. Such work is wide-ranging and crucially, it underpins all economic activity. Taken together, the term “care economy” captures the relationship between economic and reproductive activities that sustain human societies.
One striking feature of the care economy is that it includes both unpaid and paid forms of labour. The work done by early childhood education and care personnel and schoolteachers, healthcare professionals, cleaners, and other household service providers are paid forms of care labour. At the same time, the time and energy spent on household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and washing performed for oneself and others can be both paid and unpaid domestic labour.
It is impossible to talk about the care economy without recognising the gendered dimension of both paid and unpaid care work. Globally speaking, women perform an inordinate amount of such labour in the world. The United Nations estimates that women carry out at least 2.5 times more unpaid household and care work than men. Unpaid care labour comprises 41 percent of the total global work hours.
Paid care work is also dominated by women globally. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that in 2018 the global care workforce of 381 million workers was comprised of 248.9 million women and 132.1 million men. This implies a feminisation rate of 65.3 %. In health-care, the most prominent sector of paid care work, women comprise 70 percent of workers globally.
Measuring this invaluable labour is complex, but assigning monetary value to it may help us understand its astounding economic contribution. Research indicates that women’s unpaid contributions to care equates to US$11 trillion or approximately 9 percent of the world GDP. These estimates are based on time-use survey data gathered from 53 countries (63.5 percent of the global working age population) and were valued at the hourly minimum wage of each country.
Gender, care, and education
The education sector  is a central pillar in the care economy. In developed economies, where the care workforce tends to be the largest, education and healthcare sectors are sizeable and relatively proportionate. Among poorer countries, care work is generally smaller and is concentrated in education, while healthcare sectors are more minor.
The education sector is a bigger source of employment for women than for men. Around 7.4 percent of all women employed in the world find jobs in education, compared to 3.1 percent of men. However, there are important regional differences, in Africa and the Arab States , men tend to dominate the education sector overall. In regions where the education sector is larger, such as developed countries, women’s employment also tends to be higher.
Gender dynamics of employment in education are quite closely related to care work. For instance, the concentration of women teachers tends to be in the earlier years of schooling and their share of employment shrinks with each successive level of education. This suggests that mainstream gender roles that associate women more closely with reproductive work and childcare are mirrored in their workforce participation. This in turn produce inequalities in the way this work is valued.
Early childhood education exemplifies this stark overlap between the gendered nature of paid care work and its devaluation. Women make-up 85 percent of pre-primary school (typically between ages 3 and 5 years) teachers in all countries with available data. ILO analyses find that in both developed and developing countries, the pay and benefits for teachers for early childhood educators overall is lower than teachers at other levels. This has been linked to the high number of women represented in this category, the low recognition of their work, and the low rates of unionisation. Education International’s research on early childhood systems in 17 countries from almost all world regions found that early childhood education teachers, particularly in the private sector, remain largely nonunionised.
Understanding the ‘crisis of care’
The ongoing struggles towards achieving gender justice and equitable, healthy, thriving societies are encapsulated in what is often termed the ‘crisis of care’. This crisis which has long simmered under societal and economic structures, refers to a) the chronic public underfunding and global devaluation of paid care work in economies, including but not limited to the education sector and b) the unequal participation in unpaid care work, where women and girls carry the largest burden. Undoubtedly, those further marginalised due to class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or migration status, often face worse and more exacerbated impacts of this crisis.
The issue of chronic public underfunding of paid care work should come as no surprise to educators. In figures released by UNESCO in 2023, 9 percent of primary school teachers quit their jobs in 2022 (almost double the rate of 4.6 percent in 2015). According to these data, this trend is also visible among pre-primary school teachers, where annually a global average of 5 percent of workers leave the profession. The UN agency estimates that 44 million additional teachers need to be recruited if every child is to be provided education in the world.
The shortfall of teachers is global—in sub-Saharan Africa there is a need for 15 million teachers to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of education for all by 2030 (SDG 4), while in Europe and North America, 4.8 million teachers are needed. This global shortfall is closely related to the deteriorating conditions, including pay and work-life balance for educators, which can only be ensured through sustained public funding of education. The ILO finds that “between 2005 and 2015, teachers’ statutory salaries decreased in real terms in one-third of the countries with available data.”
At the same time, considering women make up much of the education workforce globally, the dynamics of unpaid care labour are of equal importance here. The rising pressure to perform unpaid care labour is an acute problem due to issues such as the lack of affordable childcare and healthcare in many countries.
During the pandemic, lockdowns and other policies restricted worker mobility and the debilitating impacts of unpaid care work on teachers became increasingly visible. The Feminist Center for Information and Action’s study of the care crisis for teachers from eight countries in Latin America during the pandemic found that women teachers experienced a “deepening of the care crisis” during the pandemic, with 1 in 4 women teachers stating that the time spent on care labour for non-dependent adults increased.
This is in line with EI’s global findings on women union members during the pandemic, which noted that due to increased burden of care work, members “were forced to leave teaching because of the uncertainty of loss of income, not to mention those who left due to stress caused by the shift to online teaching modalities.”
The quote below from a key informant interviewed in this study, explains the relationship between unpaid care work and teaching during the pandemic:
This statement captures what is at the heart of the crisis of care: the compounding impact of unsustainable working conditions for teachers, and the unjust, unequal burden of care work that disproportionately affects women.
The centrality of care work in sustaining, protecting, and enhancing our societies and economies is no longer up for debate, particularly after what we have endured during the global pandemic. Despite this, there remains much to be done in terms of recognising, valuing, and supporting care work in its myriad forms in our global system.
The education sector globally speaking is feminised, devalued, and underfunded. This presents the prospect of a crisis in no uncertain terms. Education International, alongside several other organisations advocating for the rights of teachers and other care workers have drawn attention to the disastrous consequences the continuation of current patterns of underfunding and negligence of care work could have for sustainable development, global poverty, and inequality.
This brief overview has demonstrated that no discussion of the care economy can afford to ignore gender. Gender roles that strongly impact societal and household divisions of labour, are a salient lens for understanding the care economy in its paid and unpaid dimensions. Gendered societal expectations that assign women with the primary duties of childcare, housework, and other forms of caring responsibilities, ensure that women around the world spend an undue amount of time performing unpaid work. This directly contributes to their participation in paid employment- including their pay, benefits, job security, and progression. As we have seen, women’s overwhelming presence in sectors such as early childhood education, is directly correlated with lower pay, worse conditions, and high attrition rates. The devaluation of care is thus a structural source of gender inequality and is simultaneously rooted in gendered logics. Without recognising this, we will be unable to address the crisis that continues to negatively impact all aspects of our collective development.
This sector is defined to include “education and childcare comprised of schools, pre-schools, family day care centres and other structures for the caring for the youngest children” (Duffy & Armenia, 2021, p. 4).
Arab states, according to the International Labour Organization’s definition, include Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian territories, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.