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Who cares? Women, work and community power
Grace Pollard, Senior Policy Researcher, NLGN, 9 March, 2020

Women do the vast majority of unpaid care, and are often at the heart of community work. But can community empowerment help create a more egalitarian approach to paid and unpaid caring work – and to society in general? Senior Policy Researcher Grace Pollard explores.

Up and down the country, in communities and on the frontline of public services, women devote a huge number of hours to caring work. Not just the professional work of looking after young, elderly, sick and vulnerable people, but also the many hours of unpaid work caring for family, friends and neighbours. It’s not only women who take on these roles, but a couple of statistics remind us of the scale of many women’s caring responsibilities. In 2019, 79 per cent of jobs in health and social work sectors were held by women, as were 70 per cent of jobs in education.1

Women are more likely than men to work part-time,2 often to make space for caring responsibilities. On average women do 26 hours a week of unpaid tasks, including childcare, adult care and housework, compared to men’s 16 hours.3 Until older age, women are also more likely to be unpaid carers.4

The expectation that women would do the vast majority of unpaid care for the young, ill and elderly, in their homes and communities underpinned Beveridge’s model of the welfare state. But as more women entered the labour force, this model increasingly came under strain.5 Today, the questions of how we care for each other in our communities and who does this care remain pressing.

At the heart of NLGN’s work is the idea of community power – communities taking the lead in identifying the big challenges that matter to them and working collaboratively with public services to address these challenges. This radical reshaping of public services and greater empowerment of communities could help us find more equitable and sustainable solutions to how we care for each other. Here’s how:

  • Collaborating to deliver services – Opening up space for service users and professionals to collaborate and work in different ways can help to identify root causes, shared goals and new approaches to dealing with challenges. For example, as part of the Wigan Deal, professionals in Children’s Services used ‘family group conferencing’ where relatives, rather than just professionals, gather together to help find solutions to the challenges facing a child.6 Several home care services in the UK are reorganising how professionals work together. Inspired by the work of Frederic Laloux and the Buurtzorg nursing model in the Netherlands, these services are experimenting with empowering frontline care staff through ‘self-managing teams’ to develop more relationship-focused and preventative approaches to care.7 Through collaboration and drawing on the knowledge and skills of communities and frontline professionals, these approaches have the potential to build services and support that work better for those giving and receiving care.
  • Focusing on communities’ capabilities – There are a growing number of approaches which build on the strength and capabilities of an individual and the community surrounding them, rather than starting with the individual’s problems. For example, the Equal Care Co-op, in West Yorkshire, uses platform technology to allow people to get a mix of professional care, support from the community and from other people being supported by the service.8Taking this kind of approach helps shift the burden away from the person being cared for, and those immediately surrounding them, to a wider network of people and services who can offer skills, time and support.
  • Hearing more voices in decision making – It’s critical that people with first-hand experience of receiving and giving care have their voices heard in decision-making processes. As part of this, women’s representation needs to be improved both at national and local level. Participatory and deliberative approaches could provide a complimentary avenue to this. There’s been growing interest in these approaches – take for example the national citizens’ assembly on social care. The Fawcett Society argues that “having women involved in the policy conversation, and in decision-making positions, makes a difference to whether issues which have a disproportionate impact on women are discussed.”9 Greater use of participatory and deliberative approaches could be one way to ensure that those closest to many of the care challenges we face are able to join the conversation about how they should be addressed.
  • Caring work is delivered by a vast web of organisations and individuals – the challenges across these policy areas are complex and diverse with no one-size-fits-all solution. But the examples above, and a growing number of similar approaches, show that giving those closest to these issues the space and support to deliberate, experiment, collaborate, and build networks is an important step in building better services. Ultimately, those people providing care, alongside those who need care, have insight and skills which are critical to building more sustainable and equitable solutions to how we care for each other.

    1 Devine, B. F. and Foley, N. (2020) Women and the economy. House of Commons Library.
    2 Ibid.
    3 ONS. (2016) Women shoulder the responsibility of ‘unpaid work’. ONS.
    4 Roberts, N. et al. (2019) Carers. House of Commons Library. Data source: Family Resources Survey 2017/18.
    5 Cottam, H. (2018) Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state. Virago.
    6 Naylor, C. and Wellings, D. (2019) A citizen-led approach to health and care: lessons from the Wigan Deal. The Kings Fund.
    7 Hannan, R. (2019) Radical Home Care: How self-management could save social care. The RSA.
    8 Power to Change, the Equal Care Co-op
    9 Fawcett Society. (2017) Does Local Government Work for Women: Final report of the Local Government Commission. Pg. 19. Fawcett Society.


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