Care Ethics and Patriarchy: The Importance (and Burden) of Caregiving

Theories of morality have been at the forefront of humanity’s philosophical discourses for millennia. Throughout our history, we have developed a significant number of theories aimed at determining what is right and wrong, and how one should live with respect to that morality. While many of these theories were developed and discussed hundreds of years ago, Care Ethics has developed as a moral theory much more recently, gaining traction with philosophers in the 1980’s. The basic idea behind Care Ethics is that “there is moral significance in the fundamental elements of relationships and dependencies in human life.” [1] This practical morality aims to place moral value on care-giving and care-receiving within our inherently social existence, as well as the “need for responsiveness in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and the costs of losing connection with oneself or with others.” [2]

This way of viewing care as an intrinsically moral action can be used to exemplify prominent biases about caregivers in the world. Primary among these biases are the expectation that women perform caring duties and cultural preference towards women as caregivers. One of the pioneers of Care Ethics, Carol Gilligan, addressed this idea in a 2011 interview, saying, “It is crucial to clarify that within a patriarchal framework, the ethics of care is a “feminine” ethic, whereas within a democratic framework it is a human ethic, grounded in core democratic values: the importance of everyone having a voice and being listened to carefully and heard with respect.”

In a recent study, the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) estimated that 66% of caregivers are female and that female caregivers are spending “as much as 50% or more time caregiving than men.” [3] Not only are women spending more time caregiving, but they also face severe financial strain as a result. For example, “The negative impact on a caregiver’s retirement fund is approximately $40,000 more for women than it is for men.” [4] [5]

This uneven distribution clearly shows that the burden falls, in practice at least, primarily on women. For something as fundamentally important to our societal success as caregiving, the uneven distribution of caregiving seems to be representative of an antiquated system that sees caregiving as a predominantly feminine duty. So how does this disadvantage women?

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Former Director of Policy Planning for the US Department of State, addresses some of the ways in her article for The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In this article, she discusses her own road to a prominent career while also carrying the weight of a primary caregiver. Slaughter describes the career path for caregivers as  “irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years…” [6] Because caregiving is perceived as a “feminine” role, women who want to pursue careers are limited by their status as caregiver and are frequently not able to make the same type of “career moves” as those without caring duties.

So, how can we distribute the burden of caregiving equitably, so that people can engage with the ethic of care and not endure the setbacks it creates? The answer lies in “freeing Democracy from the patriarchy” (Gilligan 2011). True Democracy lies in the idea that the members of an organization or group all have equal voice in making decisions for that organization or group. In our current system, women are hampered by a patriarchal system that inhibits their success largely because of the expectation for women to be caregivers. The ethic of care is an essential part of human survival and should therefore be upheld equally by all members of the society. Just as Democracy requires equal representation of voice, so too should the burden and blessing of caregiving fall equally on the members of the society that requires that “care” to function and thrive.

A good starting point would be providing paid maternity and paternity options for new parents. “A 2019 report by UNICEF [7], which analysed legally protected leave for new parents in 41 of the world’s richest countries, found that 26 offered paid paternity leave, while 40 had paid leave for new mothers…The most generous countries for paid leave for fathers are Japan, South Korea and Portugal, according to the UNICEF report. The least is the US – the only country analyzed not to offer any kind of paid leave to mothers or fathers.” [8]

Until more sweeping and impactful changes are made to dismantle the patriarchy and distribute equally the burden of care, the ethic of care will continue to fall, unfairly, on women, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reduce its burden.

-B.R.C.


[1] Sander-Staudt, M. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/care-eth/.

[2] Webteam. (2011, July 16). Carol Gilligan. Ethics of care. https://ethicsofcare.org/carol-gilligan/#:~:text=A%20feminist%20ethic%20of%20care,special%20obligations%20or%20interpersonal%20relationships).

[3]  Demitz, C. (2017, December 15). Caregiving and its impact on women. MSU Extension. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/caregiving_and_its_impact_on_women.

[4] Family Caregiver Alliance. (2001). Selected Caregiver Statistics (Fact Sheet). San Francisco, CA: Author.

[5] MetLife (2011) The MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Caregivers. Retrieved (January 2015) from https://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/mmi-caregiving-costs-working-caregivers.pdf

[6] Slaughter, A.-M. (2012). Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/.

[7] Chzhen, Y., Gromada, A., & Rees, G. (2019, June). Family-Friendly Policy Research 2019. New York City; Unicef.

[8] Bryant, M. (2020, January 29). Paternity leave: US is least generous in list of world’s richest countries. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/29/paternity-leave-us-policy#:~:text=Labor%20Organization%20found.-,The%20most%20generous%20countries%20for%20paid%20leave%20for%20fathers%20are,leave%20to%20mothers%20or%20fathers.

Image Sources:

Title Picture (Hands): Google Stock

List of Female Caregiver Stats: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/caregiving_and_its_impact_on_women

Paternity Leave: https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00500/japan-has-the-best-paternity-leave-system-but-who%E2%80%99s-using-it.html

Maternity Leave: https://blogs.unicef.org/evidence-for-action/unicef-maternity-leave-compare-eu-oecd-countries/

One thought on “Care Ethics and Patriarchy: The Importance (and Burden) of Caregiving

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s