Why centering care work is essential for gender equality

Reflections this International Women's Day


For this year’s International Women’s Day, the United Nations calls on us to “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress.” The theme highlights how, amid a global polycrisis, achieving gender equality is vital for the collective well-being of communities worldwide. It calls attention to the significant challenges that persist in ensuring gender-equitable outcomes: in particular, evidence from the 2023 Gender Snapshot projecting that 340 million women and girls will still be living in poverty by 2030 and highlighting a significant funding shortfall—an additional $360 billion investment needed to achieve SDG goals of gender equality.

As global calls for financing for gender equality continue, it is vital to center care in these conversations. Over the past few decades, while programs focusing on women’s inclusion into the formal economy have made promising strides, much of the labor traditionally performed by girls and women, such as domestic and care work, is unpaid and not accounted for in conventional economic models. Globally, women perform an estimated 76 percent of unpaid care work. Even when paid, care work is often characterized by low wages and inadequate working conditions, especially for the most marginalized workers.

This International Women’s Day, as we reflect upon the advances made in the struggle for gender equality and justice in the previous decades, policy and program design would also be strengthened from addressing the relative invisibility of women’s labor across informal and care economies.

Situating women in global development

Globally, women’s inclusion as stakeholders in development processes emerged in the 1970s as part of a transnational “Women in Development” movement, which sought to position women as central to development—both as agents and beneficiaries. The movement’s advocacy translated into significant policy shifts, beginning with the 1973 Percy Amendment to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, requiring that “U.S. foreign aid programs encourage and promote the integration of women into the national economies in the developing countries.”

In the following decade, a broad array of global actors began championing women’s role in development. For example, the OECD instituted the Guiding Principles for Supporting the Role of Women in Development in 1983, and the World Bank established a Women in Development division in 1987. Galvanized by the U.N. Decade for Women (1975), along with decades of feminist research and organizing across the Global South and North, such programs ranged from women workers’ rights to small scale social enterprise, the latter of which were contemporaneous with the ascendancy of neoliberal policies in the 1980s and the faith in increasingly market-based solutions toward development.

But much like the biologically deterministic category of “woman” itself, actors working in the women in development space were far from homogenous. Over the intervening decades, their work has pushed theory and practice in new directions, introducing debates over whether women’s economic inclusion should be separated from advocating structural transformations in the political economy and asking what the roles of gender, race, caste, class, ability, and geopolitics are in women’s development programs. This has led to new frameworks, including those emphasizing gender relations, intersectionality, and global redistributive politics, which continue to shape contemporary debates in the broader field of gender and development.

In many of these debates, the gendered division of labor has been at the center. For example, feminist research on social reproduction—which broadly refers to the paid and unpaid labor necessary to sustain human life, such as care work—highlights not only that such labor has historically been seen as “women’s work” but also how its devaluation is fundamental in reproducing inequality and patriarchy.

Building care infrastructures for a gender-equal future

So, while today’s calls to invest in gender equality can fuel transformative initiatives, there are also perils associated with focusing solely on women’s inclusion in the formal labor market. Evaluating progress through this lens can not only render women who perform domestic or care work as “unworthy, disposable others,” but can also erase how race, class, and geopolitics shape labor across all gender identities. A broader view of the economy, which encompasses concepts of care, is fundamental in creating a more gender-equal future. In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 5.4 underscores the importance of valuing unpaid work by providing essential public services and promoting shared household responsibilities.

Building care infrastructures that recognize, fairly compensate, and redistribute the care work performed predominately by the working class, migrants, and women of color can lead to a multitude of benefits, including ensuring better educational outcomes for children, improving women’s mental well-being, and expanding women’s access to economic opportunities. One example of how the redistribution of care work can lead to gender equality is adequate and well-incentivized paternity leave, which can increase mothers’ probability of reemployment, promote maternal health, and advance gender and economic equality. Additionally, recognizing unpaid care and domestic work can help promote the elimination of discriminatory social norms and deep-rooted stereotypes around ideas of gender and labor–ultimately contributing to building more inclusive societies for all gender identities.

Looking forward

As global stakeholders respond to this year’s International Women’s Day call, determining who, how, and what to invest in can facilitate progress toward more equitable and sustainable development goals.

  • Who: Using an intersectional lens can enable stakeholders to identify how different systems of oppression—and the particularities between them—marginalize individuals and communities across all gender identities, and who should be centered in policy and programs.
  • How: The root causes of marginalization may then be addressed through a critical reflection of power dynamics across and within development contexts, and empowering local communities to chart their paths toward justice and equality, which can also inform recent “localization” efforts championed by development actors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.
  • What: Finally, such shifts toward intersectionality and localization may also benefit from directly addressing inequities at the household, community, and national levels—in particular, both domestic work at home and in paid sectors such as education and health care—by developing concrete tools and infrastructures that value and redistribute care burdens.

As we craft new strategies to carry forward the decades-long fight to transform systems that sustain inequality and patriarchy, reimagining the relationships between gender, labor, and the economy is essential to building a more just future for all.