Mary Daly tells Robin Wilson that the coronavirus crisis has exposed the partial and limited nature of gender-equality gains.
Robin Wilson: In writing a book like Gender Inequality and Welfare States in Europe, you are obviously highlighting how the literature on the welfare state has often been, in your assessment, gender-blind. What have been the key blindspots?
Mary Daly: I think the first blindspot has been in what it is about the welfare state that is studied. Most of the literature has studied social-insurance benefits—so unemployment payments, pensions, accident and illness payments. These are, of course, important, but they’re classically men’s benefits, and they’re actually only a part of the welfare state.
What hasn’t been in the literature as much as it should be is what we call social-assistance benefits. That is, benefits that are discretionary, so people have to have a need of some kind, and have that need legitimised by the statutory authorities to get these benefits. It’s primarily women who have—historically, anyway—used those benefits.
Another thing that has been less studied generally in welfare states, though it’s important from a gender perspective, is social services. Most of our literature on the welfare state comes from studying income support, how the welfare state guarantees incomes. We have far less literature on how the welfare state provides services and, indeed, how the welfare state is an employer.
This emphasis on social insurance, what’s called ‘men’s welfare state’, has meant that we know most about the welfare state as a settlement between social classes, in particular between workers—organised workers, through trade unions, for example, or perhaps through political parties—and employers. That literature has sought to understand and explain the welfare state in terms of the ways it tries to manage this conflict.
Of course, that overlooks the fact that the welfare state is also very much engaged in managing relations between women and men and between generations and, indeed, between the family and society, or the family and the state, or the family and the market. So there are a number of blindspots, but these seem to me the most important.
Now, you said there that the welfare state has been, to some degree, about managing relations between women and men. You do say in your book that there have been some changes in the welfare state which have addressed gender concerns, but you say they tend to have been confined to labour-market participation by women. What has been lacking in that regard?
It depends on the length of history you look at. Historically, certainly from the 1970s or 1980s on, the welfare state, or particular welfare states—the European Union social policy, for example—did problematise gender inequality or women’s disadvantage relative to men.
So it was part of a project. Gender inequality was part of a bigger project for a certain period of time, but over the last 20 years the gender-equality dimension of the welfare state has come to focus more and more on employment and, in particular, on increasing the number of women in employment.
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While having everyone in employment is important, it’s not a solution to gender inequality. What has happened is that women’s lives have become more like men’s and men really haven’t been required to change, or the institutions around male lives have not been required to change in the way that women have been required to change.
You can see this in the indicators. We now measure gender equality, primarily, by wage gaps. We know that wage-gap data tells us there is, depending on the country you look at, a 15 to 20 per cent wage gap between women and men in general.
But that gap in itself is much too narrow as a measure of gender inequality. Employment is important but it’s not the only thing. We need to think about power. We need to think about women’s access to decision-making, at whatever level we’re looking at, whether it’s in the workplace or whether it’s in the home or in the public institutions, like parliaments or local councils or whatever. Power is one dimension that we haven’t really focused on sufficiently.
Another is time. In my book I say there are really three things that we need to be measuring equality around, in relation to the welfare state. One is employment. The second is income, and not just income from employment but income from all sources: the welfare state, wealth, whatever. The third is time. How much time do people have available to them? How much choice do they have around using the time they have and, in particular, the time distribution between women and men—not just in the paid labour market but also in the home?
That issue of time that you’ve raised does bring in the distinction you highlight in the book between public and private, and how that is taken for granted. That leads to a disproportionate share—still very disproportionate share—of care work for women, as you’ve said in talking about the double burden that employed women typically face. How can we encourage a rethinking of that public-private distinction, so that women’s choices aren’t so constrained?
We’ve probably started that, actually, already. In the last ten years or so, we’ve seen the emergence of a work-family balance perspective, which has concerned itself with not just the amount of hours that people work and are paid for in the paid economy but also, to some extent, [with the principle] that people shouldn’t be overburdened in the private domain.
You’ve seen a growth of leave from employment, for example, for family-related purposes. We’ve always had maternity leave, but increasingly we’ve had paternity leaves and parental leaves. They’re a step in that direction of recognising that equality doesn’t stop in the public domain. You also need to intervene in the private domain.
That’s one first step, but when I look at the measures that have been taken around Covid I’m very struck by this public/private domain [issue] again—that has been quite prominent, because what most governments did was lock down. They locked down people, basically, in their own homes. They put nothing—or hardly anything—in place to support people in their own homes.
The services were all cut, for example, and the welfare state intervened mainly in what you might think of as the public domain, around supporting employment, trying to keep jobs going, through furlough schemes and so forth, and also through some income support measures. But the things that we had put in place around private life and trying to ensure that private life—or so-called private life—functioned well, they’ve actually more or less stopped. That’s interesting. Feminists, historically, have developed this idea of a public-private divide as one of the institutions, if I could use that word, that actually kept inequality—gender inequality particularly—going.
And there is some evidence, in terms of what you’re saying, that the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated existing trends around that public-private divide because it has meant that women have been doing additional hours of caring work—while men have been doing some more additional hours, they haven’t been adapting nearly as much to the crisis as women have. Of course, there has also been the extreme scenario of women exposed to domestic violence and so on, on a greater scale. Is your sense of it, at this early stage, that the coronavirus crisis has, perhaps, been less of a shock to the system in terms of gender roles than it might have been?
Of course, we haven’t got enough research yet to know. But a shock is always an interesting experience, because it is an opportunity to change on the one hand, yet it also reveals the fundaments of the system on the other.
My sense is that coronavirus has revealed, in some ways, how shallow our architecture for gender equality is, particularly in the last ten years, because what we’ve based gender equality on is women being able to move into employment, and an architecture of childcare services to support that. Sometimes those childcare services are dependent on low-income, low-paid jobs, and migrant workers—particularly when we think also of eldercare.
Coronavirus has stopped all of that and so what we see, when we look at who’s caring for the children and who’s caring for the older people, [is that] it is, in the first instance, family based. We have a return to family, which was something that we tried to change when we moved towards gender equality.
Also, within families, the evidence suggests that it is women, as you say, who have borne the main burden of childcare. The statistics that I see for the UK suggest that, on average, during the height of lockdown, families had about 40 hours more childcare to undertake and women did about three-quarters of that.
It depended a bit on whether men were home-based or not and, indeed, whether women were home-based or not, so there’s some variation there. We need to be really careful about how we understand it. As I said, I don’t think we have yet got the evidence to really be clear about it, but in general I think it has kind of reverted to the old pattern of women having the primary responsibility for childcare and men having a secondary responsibility in that regard.
You’ve said already that you think we need to understand that private-public divide from a gender perspective to engage in any critique of the welfare state as it has developed. But when it comes to developing an alternative perspective, what you seem to be suggesting is that, rather than focusing on labour-market risks implicitly to men, the starting point should be the idea of the ‘care economy’. Can you explain what implications that change of perspective would have, including both for the socialisation and sharing of domestic care, as well as for those women—mainly they are women, as you’ve said—working in paid care roles, often in precarious contexts?
The care economy is a particular concept, developed by feminist economists in the main. We need to pay attention to the ‘economy’ aspect of it. There is a whole other literature that just generally talks more about care as a social value, as a way of relating to each other. So we need to understand that the care economy is nested within that broader sense that care matters.
If we start with the care-economy concept, the core sense of it is that we would value the work that goes into caring—paid caring, also unpaid caring, but paid caring for those who need care in our societies: children, but also vulnerable adults, for example, and, of course, older, fragile adults. We would actually value that. We would see it as a sector of the economy that has value and that should have good conditions of work. Certainly in the so-called ‘liberal’ welfare states—the UK, US, to some extent Australia and so forth—that work tends to be low-paid, [with] very little [by way of] conditions around people needing to be trained for it, but also generally ignored as a poor sector of the economy.
That isn’t universal. In other countries—like the Scandinavian countries, the continental European countries, for example—people have a high level of training for that work. They have to go formally and train for it and it’s not considered a low-paid sector. It’s probably undervalued in many countries but it’s not quite undervalued to the extent that it is in the UK and the ‘liberal’ economies.
We will have to think of the care economy and care as a sector of value. We will have to overturn the poor conditions and reward people better for it. Some countries did that. For example, France increased the payment rates or salaries of care workers during the pandemic. Scotland also tended to increase or bring forward a pay raise for that sector of the economy. Covid was really an opportunity to actually treat these workers better and I don’t think it’s an opportunity that has been taken up.
So, resource the care economy much better, but also in terms of care as a broader moral value in society. We had some examples during the early days of lockdown, when people really started to care about each other and to care about the people in their local neighbourhoods, for example—those who might be living alone, who might have needs that couldn’t be met because of service cutbacks and so forth.
There was some evidence there of a change or a return to the interpersonal values: ‘Is my neighbour okay? Is my neighbourhood okay? Are my family okay?’ Feminists would say, or care ethicists would say, that that’s actually a way towards a better society generally and that Covid was an opportunity—is still an opportunity—to return to making us care more about each other, making us care more about our environment, for example.
It’s interesting. In the newspapers today in Britain, the government is calling on people to report their neighbours if they break lockdown and so forth. I wonder if that’s a further movement away from caring, actually—it’s a very different perspective to actually care about what’s happening next door and try to understand what’s happening next door, rather than running to police your neighbours.
With the exception of Sweden, the Nordic welfare states certainly seem to have performed much better.
Yes, they do seem to have performed much better. It looks like their economies will recover quickly—more quickly—but the Nordic welfare states are quite different, while Sweden is an exception. Finland seems the one that has really performed the best, from what I see of the statistics.
Those countries have protected vulnerable sectors of the population better. They haven’t had the virus rampage that we’ve had in the UK and the US has had—and Canada, indeed, has had—through care homes, killing older people in large numbers.
They haven’t had that, which is really good, and it’s a measure of the point I was making earlier about valuing care, valuing those who need it and valuing those who provide it, paying them properly, having good conditions, having good monitoring in care homes—or, indeed, in people’s own homes—should they need care.
There are interesting differences there that we’re just beginning to learn about. It’s about the nature of the economy and the nature of the welfare state in particular—and also, I suppose, public values about what matters.
You seem to be saying that we need to think about a welfare society, as well as a welfare state, where certain values and forms of behaviour just become spontaneous, in a more solidaristic, less selfish kind of way. How do you think those values are best stimulated in society, in a way that obviously isn’t authoritarian or overly punitive?
I start with the welfare state, because the welfare state is the best institution we have of solidarity. That’s its origin and it developed in different ways in different countries and has different nuances, but it is, in almost every country—particularly if you include the health system, the education system, housing etc— the institution we have that is most oriented to social solidarity.
The welfare state has received a really bad press in many countries as neoliberal thinking has taken hold and, as I said, [with] the emphasis on the market. The rationale for it, over the last ten years, in times of austerity, trying to recover from the recession of 2008, has primarily been to shepherd people—or push people, in some countries or in some cases—into employment. So it’s this social-investment perspective, which is bigger than just pushing people into employment, it must be said, because it’s also about childcare and so forth, investing in the youngest generation. But generally the welfare-state function has been to be a handmaiden to the labour market, to enable people to be self-supporting in the labour market.
Now it’s interesting to think, in the context of Covid, whether that kind of welfare state is sustainable. It doesn’t seem to me that it is, because it depends on where people were pushed or where benefit recipients were pushed. Generally, [it was] into low-paying, part-time jobs, which for many people required another earner. You needed to have households that are dual-earning. In fact, one person in that household needed to have a full-time job, so it comes back a little bit to the shallowness of the recent settlement that we’ve had.
Going forward, it’s not clear we’ll get those low-paying jobs back. It’s not clear we should want to get them back. Perhaps we need to think differently about a welfare state that’s much more about equality.
So [it’s] not about cheap solutions, in a way—put everybody into employment—but much more about problem[-solving]. What is the problem of gender inequality or black and ethnic-minority inequality, or inequalities as intersecting? What is that problem? Where does it start? That we actually try to understand that, rather than just see it as an outcome-related measure.
Okay, if we can come back, then, finally, to where we started, with the conventional understanding of the welfare state as about dealing with implicitly male risks in the labour market, what you seem to be talking about is a renewal or refoundation of the welfare state, on the principle of rights—rights defined in a very broad range of ways, including not just rights of individuals as conventionally assumed (‘breadwinner’ workers) but also, obviously, rights of women, rights of members of ethnic minorities and other vulnerable individuals. How do you think that it’s possible to change the political debate about welfare in the way that, for example, in Sweden was done with the phrase ‘the people’s home’, when suddenly people thought about what welfare was in a different way? How can that discourse about welfare be changed, away from the neoliberal one that you mentioned—where it’s just seen as a burden and a distraction—to something that’s embraced more positively as a route to universal wellbeing?
That’s a difficult question, particularly in such divided political times as we have, where people who are often most deprived of rights move towards populist parties and so forth. I like the concept of social protection generally, and that’s an old concept. It’s one of the fundamental principles of welfare states.
In it is there’s an idea of rights. Rights probably have been damaged during the coronavirus crisis. I’m thinking here, for example, of some of the legislation that was brought in [in England] with the lockdown in March. That said that local authorities need only provide care for those who don’t have it if [they would otherwise] breach their human rights.
That’s a huge step back from the previous legislation, which said that local authorities had an obligation—full stop—to provide care for those who need it. We’ve had no new rights that I can think of during Covid, so we could start a conversation around rights. We could start a conversation around social protection and the renewal of the welfare state, given that we live in a very different world to what we lived in before. But risks also have to be part of that conversation, because social protection, historically, is about protecting against risks.
Yes, the way we conceived of the risks, historically, was male risks around the labour market—not being able to work and men not being able to earn a so-called family wage—but Covid brings all new kinds of risks. I’ve talked about some of them: the fact that those jobs, those low-paying, part-time work jobs—particularly in the service economy—won’t be available.
If they’re not available, how do we enable people to earn an income? Should we think about universal basic income in that regard, for example? But [there are] also risks around people not being able to access care. We know that the health systems have been fully occupied—more than fully occupied—to deal with the health problems associated with Covid. They’ve had priority in most countries.
That means that [with] other health-related risks and care which doesn’t require medical intervention—care for older people, care for those who are ill, care for children—huge gaps have been developed, so we have to also think about how we’re going to respond to those needs.
I don’t have a magic bullet but it’s really important to recognise that the policies adopted during Covid were a choice and to critique them for the kind of choice they were. Did they attend to rights sufficiently? What kind of risks did they cover? How could they have been better—and how can we be better, going forward?
This is part of a series on the coronavirus crisis and the welfare state supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung