Women are more likely than men to take care of a family member, and when they do they are less likely to work, according to a new study from Yeonjung Lee and Fengyan Tang for the Journal of Applied Gerontology. For men who act as caregivers, however, the role has no impact on whether or not they’re in the labor force.
The study looked at older Americans, people ages 50 to 61, who are not typically starting retirement and excluded those who are disabled or otherwise not likely to be involved in caregiving or work. Among those, about a third took care of someone and 4 percent took care of two or more people, with nearly 20 percent caring for a parent, about 15 percent caring for a grandchild, and a bit over 4 percent caring for a spouse.
But women, perhaps unsurprisingly given that it has traditionally been their role, were more likely to be caregivers than men. More than 20 percent took care of errands, chores, and transportation for their parents, compared to less than 16 percent of men, and 7 percent of women addressed their personal needs while just 3.6 percent of men did. While the numbers differed less for grandparents, men who acted as a caregiver for their grandchildren tended to be married, “indicating married couples took the caregiving responsibility together,” while women were more likely to take the duty on by themselves, the authors note.
And being a caregiver had an impact on whether a woman was in the labor force, while it didn’t have a bearing for men. Women were less likely to have or want a job if they were taking care of their parents’ personal needs or taking on two caregiving roles, but men were just as likely to be in the workforce whether or not they cared for someone.
Other research has found that caring for children similarly impacts whether women stay in the workforce. One study found that mothers are more likely to make changes to their careers to accommodate caring for their children, which meant that their husbands didn’t have to make any adjustments. They are also more likely to change their work arrangements than men when they have preschool-aged children, before kids go off to full-day public school.
The country has not made it easier for women to balance the demands of care work and paid work. Women made huge gains in entering the labor force after the 1970s to where they now represent nearly half of the workforce. But the growth in their participation has actually stagnated since the 1990s while other countries have seen much bigger growth. In 1990, the United States stood at number six for women’s labor force participation among 22 other developed countries, but it’s fallen to number 17. Researchers have linked this problem to a failure to keep up on policies that help workers, and in particular mothers who are still saddled with most of the childrearing, to balance kids and jobs, in particular paid parental leave, help in affording childcare, and easing the ability to move to part-time work.
And the United States really does stand out when it come to these policies. Other developed countries spend about .5 percent of their GDP on childcare on average, while the U.S. spends .11 percent. Childcare often costs more than the average American family spends on rent or food, yet subsidies to help families pay for it have become more and more stingy. The U.S. is one of just three out of 178 countries around the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave. On top of that, it is the only advanced country among the 15 most competitive that doesn’t guarantee time off to care for a sick family member, meaning that 40 percent of workers don’t have access to paid sick leave.