Women, work and caring: unspoken expectations and stifled careers

Published: 8 Mar 2017

Sally WilsonSally Wilson, Senior Research Fellow

The days when women over 50 are too busy with their families to progress their careers should be long gone but UK statistics would suggest otherwise. At the time of the most recent census in 2011, one in four women in England and Wales aged 50-64 had caring responsibilities for older or disabled loved ones. Bearing in mind the population is ageing, in 2017 this is likely to be an underestimate. Carers UK have highlighted a cohort of ‘sandwich’ carers – women looking after young children and elderly parents at the same time.  And of those women who take a career break to care for their children, some find they barely have a chance to get their feet back under the desk (never mind on the career ladder) before the need to look after an older relative arises.

Naturally, everyone wants the best care possible for loved ones who may become ill or disabled. In many cases outside help is not an option, so responsibility falls upon family members. Typically, financial circumstances dictate that the main care provider is not the breadwinner, so it can be hard for the person on the lower wage or not in paid work (more often a woman, but this is changing) to argue that someone else should do it. And regardless of their living circumstances, some women find that, as a sister or daughter, the expectation is on them to take care of unwell or disabled relatives or organise their care.

Many of those who care for an adult family member, men as well as women, need to work and want to work: at least one in nine workers in England and Wales look after someone frail or disabled. Therefore there is an invisible army within many workforces who are performing a difficult juggling act. Workers in that position can feel permanently ‘on call’ for an emergency and under relentless stress. Also, while employees have the right to request flexible working, not all carers are aware of this or feel comfortable asking for it. There can be a stigma associated with caring and some carers are unwilling to ‘out’ themselves. Therefore it is common for employees to report using holiday time or taking unpaid leave to accompany the person they care for to hospital appointments or attend domestic emergencies. The necessary juggling can play havoc with careers and lead carers to turn down development opportunities or apply for promotion to more demanding roles.

On the positive side, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) recognises that caring is an equality issue and carers’ rights at work are covered by the 2010 Equality Act. The issue is also of interest to policymakers concerned with carers’ financial and physical wellbeing. The GEO, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health are jointly funding a set of initiatives (the Carers in Employment Pilots) to deliver improved support to working-age carers. The aim is to identify cost-effective ways of supporting carers to re-enter or stay in employment. The pilot is being delivered by the Social Care Institute for Excellence and IES is currently researching its impacts. Our research involves evaluating approaches such as employee advocacy, awareness-raising of carer’s rights at work, and provision - where appropriate - of assistive technology. There are also schemes to promote peer support among carers and improve their wellbeing: while caring can be rewarding it can also be time-consuming and exhausting. IES researchers have been talking to carers, the people they care for, and employers to seek their views on what has made a difference. Later this year we will publish our findings which will identify the types of carers it has been possible to help (and how), as well as who has been harder to help (and why).

As the population ages it is likely that, whether male or female, more of us are going to experience first-hand the issues confronted by working-age carers. While political arguments fly around about the current pressures on health and social care and how government should respond to them, on International Women’s’ Day it makes sense to think about cultural expectations around caring roles as well. Families, employers and the wider community all have a role to play in challenging stereotypes about work and care and making sure those issues aren’t siloed according to gender. Furthermore it’s within everybody’s interests that those who find themselves providing care feel supported and appreciated, and do not have to give up other aspects of their life, such as work.

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More blogs for International Women's Day 2017

An opportunity to be bold for gender pay equality

Catherine Rickard urges organisations to view gender pay reporting as an opportunity to tackle inequality and promote change.

Older women at work: doubly disadvantaged?

Rosa Marvell considers the experience of older women in the labour market and why we need to act to support them.


Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.