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Why business should care about unpaid care work and social norms

Posted by Claudia Codsi Corporate Partnerships, Unilever

14th Mar 2017

The issue of unpaid care work, a subject close to my heart as a working mother of two young children, was the subject of a thought provoking panel discussion on why it matters to business at a co-hosted event in London by Unilever and Oxfam last week.  What struck me as I reflected on the issues raised during the event was the clear ethical and commercial rationale for engagement ranging from the opportunity for business to innovate and develop new products / services that address unpaid care to increasing consumer loyalty and improving retention at work.


However as we celebrated International Women's Day last week, I thought about the sobering facts that show we are still a long way from achieving gender equality anywhere in the world. We know them well; women earn less1 and remain vastly underrepresented in the senior leadership ranks of both business and government2. Globally, women earn 23% less than men and do (18% in the UK). Most women entrepreneurs go into business out of necessity, rather than opportunity, and operate in the informal, unregulated, and unprotected sector3And last but not least, women do at least double the amount of unpaid care - from 2 to 10 times as much.

Speakers provided perspectives from a wide array of organisations on why the issue matters to business and society and included DFID, The Body Shop, Unilever's laundry brand SURF, Promundo, the NGO focused on engaging men and boys on gender equality, Oxfam and The Global Alliance for Clean Cook stoves. 

The presentations focused on making a strong case for recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid care work and ensuring that women are represented in discussions about the economy in order to achieve equality in the workplace. The event was well attended by delegates from companies including John Lewis, Mars, Kingfisher and Ted Baker, NGOs such as Care, Plan and Save the Children, alongside academic institutions.

Nikki Van Der Gaag, Oxfam's Women's rights Director set the scene by outlining the moral, societal and business imperative on why the issue of unpaid care was so important now.  For the first time there was an SDG dedicated to unpaid care and one of the seven priority areas for the High Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment next week.  Women all over the world were doing unpaid work in the home on top of any paid work they do.  The links to discriminatory social institutions and gender stereotypes were evident, impacting their ability to take part in the labour market and the type and quality of employment prospects available to them.

There was consensus amongst the panellists of the increasing interest and economic imperative from the UN, private sector and non-governmental organisations to collaborate to recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work, especially through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and through the promotion of shared responsibility within the family.

Stefano Giolito, Global Brand director for SURF gave a strong case for why the brand chose to address unpaid care, through its innovation and partnerships.  He referenced the time and labour saving innovation and devices that reduce the time women spend doing unpaid care work. In parts of the world, where  washing clothes can take up to 4-5 hours to fetch water, SURF's product innovation to reduce the amount of water and time needed to do the laundry made a huge difference to the tiresome and lengthy process women experience quoting 3-4 years of lifetime saved. He referenced the business case to illustrate the commercial rationale for engagement to other private sector actors including how brands can increase consumer loyalty with research backing up the fact that the public want to buy from companies that demonstrate higher values.

Stefano introduced Oxfam and Surf's three-year partnership that aims to reduce, recognise, and redistribution unpaid care work, with a unique focus on laundry. The partnership programmes, operating in Zimbabwe and the Philippines, aims to promote activities that reach 19 million people, focused on recognising the impact unpaid care work has on women and girls' lives and encouraging more equitable distribution. What makes this partnership unique is the complementary skills being brought to the partnership with Oxfam bringing expertise on women's empowerment and unpaid care, WE Care methodology, experience and networks and Surf bringing consumer insights, marketing expertise, R&D insights as well as financial support. Unilever's recent commitment to break stereotypes in all their advertising would play a key role in supporting the programme's aims and setting new norms about women and men's work.

Isabelle Cardinal from DFID shared the government's view on unpaid care work and her desire to trigger a global conversation on the issue to change the discourse on tackling the barriers women's economic empowerment in the business world. In her view addressing unpaid care and challenging social norms was key to making women more visible at work especially in making them more visible value chains.

Thalia Kidder, senior economic justice lead for WE Care agreed with Stefano on the need to develop products that work in rural, low income areas, and that through our programme on WE Care, by combining evidence and research about water and laundry to design and pilot new interventions we hope can inspire and engage others to see the value of investing in unpaid care. There was much discussion on the relevance for business - she gave parallels to the issue of Gender Based Violence and Human Rights which some years ago was invisible but that has been given more prominence due to a deeper understanding of the economic cost of business and society not addressing these societal issues.

The event came to a close with the delegates brainstorming what businesses could do in this space.  The consensus was that there is some positive developments that we all knew about to address unpaid care, but more collaborative working was needed across the private sector, government and civil society. More evidence was also needed on the cost to business of not addressing unpaid care work -  with clearer links between Unpaid care work and GDP,  with the cost benefit outlined in a language that business understand.

The event brought home how important it was to work together to achieve SDG 5.4 to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care. More than ever, civil society, business and government now have the mandate and collective power to push unpaid care up the economic agenda.  There are huge gains to be made to achieve transformational change for women by bringing our respective expertise and collaborating together.  It matters to business and to society to address the structural barriers that keep women from achieving their full potential and to building prosperous societies in the future.  It matters to me and to the future world I want my son and daughter to be growing up in.

Image from the left are: Isabelle Cardinall - Senior Social Development Advisor, DFID * Thalia Kidder - Senior Advisor, Women's Economic Rights, Oxfam * Nikki Van Der Gaag - Director of Gender Justice and Women's Rights, Oxfam * Stefano Giolito - Senior Global Brand Director, Unilever Analia Mendez - Global Director, Social Mission Expertise, Unilever



[2] McKinsey Power of Parity 2015 citing ILO data

[3] Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. 2012. "GEM 2012 Women's Report." Online at https://gemconsortium.org/report

Blog post written by Claudia Codsi

Corporate Partnerships, Unilever

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