Is there gender equality while care work remains unpaid and assigned exclusively to women?

At a meeting with media practitioners and women leaders discussing ways to address the glaring imbalance in representation of women in broadcast programming, a male producer offers a rebuttal to the criticism: women journalists have an aversion to evening appearances on talk shows.

When the moderator asks one woman to respond to the claim, she confirms and suggests that producers should make an effort to invite women to programs earlier in the day, because after work they have to return home to cook for their families. What follows is a resigned shrug and an I-rest-my-case hand wave from the producer.

In conversations on women’s liberation, or as commonly referred to, equality, we are often reminded of the progress that has been made: women can now go to school, pursue careers, head institutions and corporations, break glass ceilings, you name it. Which ideally would mean that women should lean in, take up space, among other neoliberal girl power calls to action.

For women to offer the response in the introduction whenever career or leadership opportunities arise seems like self-sabotage. Yet, this narrative is just half of the story, the other half of which we must seek if we are going to get the entire picture.

There’s a reason why reporters, against their better judgment, insist on the question: ‘how do you balance it all?’ in interviews with career women (note that career men is a never used term) who have families. Reporters are as conditioned as just anybody living in any patriarchal society, to view women as the bearers of labour that is specifically in service to others, in this case, their families. In the average family, a woman is charged with taking on the work that we might commonly refer to as housework.

Cleaning, cooking, child rearing, nursing sick family members, you name it. Subconsciously, the reporter in this scenario is only reinforcing that patriarchal expectation on women to not just carry the burden of ensuring our wellbeing; but to do it alongside the other duties assigned to them in their careers, and do all equally well. Typically with little or no help; and for the former, no pay.

Now, women who attempt this touted balance are praised for their supposed strength; others may even derive a sense of fulfillment from it. But to keep up with this impossible expectation, they too must delegate that work. In their homes, they hire young women domestic workers who carry the weight of the care work, often at a pittance. The employers, a classed career woman and her male partner – the passive oppressor equally conditioned to ignore any part in doing his fair share of home maintenance – pat themselves on the back for giving this poor human being work. Letting her into their home. Trusting her with their children.

But even while the domestic worker does the proverbial lion’s share, the career woman must remain in character, dutifully performing her role in care work by the sidelines. Watching, supervising and instructing. Taking charge of one meal, dinner, which she will serve her husband and children as any good wife and mother would. It is this meal that shall prompt her to decline speaking about her knowledge on an evening broadcast show. On turning the producer down, she will be accused of self-sabotage; but should she accept to join the panelists, then she has abandoned her duties.

Some folks will argue that in their families, it is different. That the men help with childcare, and the domestic workers are well compensated. However, modifications on a personal basis do not translate to change, and slapping small band aids on a systemic problem can only go so far. For example, in a space with her non-progressive in-laws, a woman whose unicorn husband is doing his share of care work shall still be subjected to the expectation of fulfilling her duties on her own. Likewise, if this woman has male siblings, and a member of their family falls sick, she will most likely take care of the patient’s daily needs more than her brothers will. The cycle is unending.

Hiring domestic workers – the process of which is also largely undertaken by the woman – does not alleviate the care work burden enough for women in the critical mass to freely participate in civic discourse. Neither can a progressive husband save their partner from gendered labour exploitation.

So where do we go from here? First, and more urgently, policy actors must move to recognise care work as a major part of the economy’s survival. And thus move to make it equitably distributed and billable. That looks like allocating more relief and support resources to women who do this work, establishing mandatory monetary compensation for stay-at-home moms; a cumbersome role that’s most notably not considered work.

We must as a generation work towards recognising injustices such as these, then doing our part individually and collectively to end them. Men should have these conversations with one another, and challenge themselves to do their fair share of care work in homes and families. Paying the domestic workers’ fees and buying washing machines for your wives to use is not the flex you would like it to be. Collectively taking part in that work, with or without modern house appliances, is what ultimately contributes to substantial equality for women.