Building a care economy: 4 leaders on why investing today will create a virtuous cycle of prosperity

Without investment in the care economy, the US alone has a projected annual loss of $290 billion by 2030.
Without investment in the care economy, the US alone has a projected annual loss of $290 billion by 2030.
Image: WEF
  • Inadequate care systems are one of the biggest roadblocks to improving gender gaps in labour markets across the world.
  • 76% of unpaid care work is performed by women; when care work is paid, it is characterized by low wages.
  • Better functioning care systems that recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work are critical to closing gender gaps.

As highlighted by this year’s Global Gender Gap Report, inadequate care systems are one of the largest roadblocks to improving gender gaps in labour markets across the world.

Globally, 76% of unpaid care work is performed by women, according to the International Labour Organization, and these disparities are only worsening as many countries face shifting demographics and a growing demand for not just childcare, but also eldercare. Lack of adequate care infrastructure is a significant barrier to women’s workforce participation, limiting their choice of work, remuneration and career progression.

At the same time, healthcare and care services (64.7%) and education (54%) continue to be female-dominated fields, but too often this type of paid care work is undervalued by our economic systems and characterized by low level of remuneration, poor working conditions, and a lack of opportunities for advancement. Women’s over-representation in these fields serves to further reinforce existing gender gaps in pay and leadership.

Representation of women in the workforce, by industry, 2016-2023
Representation of women in the workforce, by industry, 2016-2023
Image: Global Gender Gap Report, WEF

Better functioning care systems that recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work, create more and better-paid jobs for care workers, and guarantee care workers’ representation are therefore critical to closing gender gaps.

In this collections piece, we hear from the members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council for the Future of the Care Economy, on their vision for how investment in the care economy can support more gender inclusive economies and societies.

'Investment in the care economy can unlock a virtuous cycle of prosperity'

Emily Kos, Managing Director & Partner, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)

Care work is historically a women’s domain. Paid care positions in the US, such as daycare workers, home health aides, and nurses, are approximately 75% female. Unpaid care work disproportionately falls on women. Investment in the care economy is an investment in women.

Demand for paid care workers will soar as the Boomer generation ages. Childcare is already in crisis in some countries, and demand for eldercare will exacerbate it.

Investments in paid care jobs – better pay, working conditions and innovation – strengthen the care infrastructure that families tap to share unpaid care workload. These improvements directly benefit women employees and create new jobs. A stronger care infrastructure, including more accessible, affordable, quality care options and workplace flexibility, allows more people with unpaid care responsibilities to participate in the workforce.

Without investment in the care economy, the US alone has a projected annual loss of $290 billion by 2030. Now is the time to ensure everyone who wants to can participate in the workforce and drive economic productivity. Beyond supporting economic recovery, investment in the care economy can unlock a virtuous cycle of prosperity for women and help make gender parity a reality.

‘Care sets off a virtuous cycle for the future – but only if we invest in it today.’

Reshma Saujani, Founder, Girls Who Code

For children, quality care improves cognition and social behaviours, and even increases the likelihood of graduating from college and earning higher salaries. And yet, for every three kids on this planet, there are two more who lack childcare. That’s 350 million babies who need safety and support.

But it’s not just children whose lives and livelihoods are transformed by childcare. Today, more than 600 million women forgo paid work for unpaid caregiving responsibilities. For the same reason, many women will also sacrifice their education – making them more likely to experience harmful gender-based practices like child marriage, adolescent pregnancy or genital mutilation.

If we finally invested in care, and afforded women the career and full 12-year education they deserve, women could earn between $15 and $30 trillion in their lifetimes – helping close a stubborn gender gap that continues to hold back our global economy. That’s to say nothing of the value generated by adults who grew up healthier and happier, thanks to the childcare they received. Care sets off a virtuous cycle for the future—but only if we invest in it today.

‘Nurses are the bedrock on which healthy societies can be built’

Howard Catton, CEO, International Council of Nurses

Some 90% of the world’s nurses are female, and it is no coincidence that the majority are under-paid: low levels of remuneration reflect the lack of esteem that societies generally afford to caring activities, particularly those with a female workforce. Such discrimination is part of a wider inequity, the gender pay gap, which despite being illegal in many countries, persists to this day.

Nurses are rightly admired and praised for their commitment to their patients, but they should also be fairly remunerated for their work which is highly complex, requires leadership and the ability to constantly reprioritize, and make decisions pertaining to life and death of those in their care – all duties which are carried out with courage and compassion.

Nurses and nursing are critical to patient safety and global health security, and it is time to recognise their true economic value rather than using outmoded gender-based stereotypes to mask and suppress their important contribution to the state of the planet’s health and economic prosperity.

We are witnessing an increase in strikes and other industrial action by nurses, all of which is indicative of a deep-rooted unfairness, and symptomatic of widening inequalities in societies generally.

What is required is long-term investment in nursing, creating more jobs, improving their education and leadership, and expanding their clinical skills and expertise. Such investment can bring many dividends to societies, not least in paving a way out of the destructive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding what were already-fragile health care systems.

The road to economic recovery is founded on good health care, and that cannot exist unless our nurses are supported and funded to reflect their true value to all of society: they are the bedrock on which healthy societies can be built.

‘A good care economy will start with paid care work that is well remunerated’

Hilary Cottam, innovator, author and social entrepreneur

Caring is intrinsic to being human. All of us are likely to need care at some point in our lives and will be carers. To support gender inclusive and sustainable economies we need to rebalance paid and unpaid care work, and the conditions under which both are organised.

Most of us want to care for our loved ones if the conditions are changed, for example if we have more flexible working arrangements that allow us to work and care. But it is also not realistic or equitable to have economies where all care is unpaid. Good care and a good care economy must start with paid care work that is well remunerated, offering good working conditions: work that provides the foundation for good lives.

The care economy must be designed as a connected system of paid and unpaid work to raise the next generation of children, tend to people with acute or chronic health conditions, and support the elderly as they age.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Gender Parity Accelerator model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in twelve countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Japan and Kazakhstan in Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and making recruitment, retention and promotion practices more gender inclusive.

If you are a business in one of the Gender Parity Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Gender Parity Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

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