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Care Work and the Economy

Ms. Shamsa Belgrave is currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College with a growing awareness that America’s current form of capitalism is damaging to so many because we’ve collectively allowed it to be overcome by damaging ethics. She’s exploring the potential that America’s form of capitalism can be reformed if not transformed to a more equitable system by revamping its underlying ethics. We're pleased to share our platform for her voice to be heard.

In analyzing flaws within our current economic system, we often forget to acknowledge how the devaluation of care work affects society and the workforce as a whole. How might the distinction of ‘women’s work’ have influenced the recognition of care work on a federal level and what are some ways we can ensure business policies do not further perpetuate unjust practices?

In the past, the use of gender in the American economy was most explicitly used to divide and organize labor. The work that men pursued was deemed of inherent value as it produced profit and sustained families financially (e.g., factory workers and merchants). ‘Women’s work’ at the time was a wage less profession thought to be pursued out of care (e.g., teachers and nurses). Women's work typically included maintaining the household and child care.

On average, in 2020 women spend over 4.5 hours daily caring for children and other family members with many having to either find a balance between their labor inside and outside of the home, or, leave their jobs entirely. For many women, the latter wasn’t a choice and by the 1970s, 50% of single women and 40% of married women were working for wages outside of the home. With this rapid increase of women's' visible participation in the economy, discussions around the value of care work were amplified and changes were demanded.

Image Credit John Hersey | The American Prospect

During the 1970s, a movement that gained a lot of attention was Wages for Housework. The organization was one of many efforts to highlight the work that women do within the household and emphasize the role of care work as the invisible backbone of the American economy itself. Many misunderstood the movement as solely wanting payment for housework. In fact, the movement was a criticism of our economic system and a call to acknowledge existing relationships, such as between the waged and the wage less, the housewife and the career woman, the employee and employer; and to hopefully find a balance that would ensure justice for all.

To say we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it…

Silvia Federici, co-founder of Wages for Housework

The movement also acknowledged the ways in which race and economic status influenced our roles in the economy. For many women of color, the role of ‘housewife’ was seen as a luxury in that it meant equal pay was being given to their working husbands regardless of their race, and that these mothers had the choice to be with their children. The point being that the movement was a collective of women from various backgrounds acknowledging the various ways in which the economic system was failing them, allowing for broader understanding of its flaws and the improvements to be issued. The movement is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.

In 1993, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to protect the positions of workers who needed to leave work for the care of their family or for medical reasons. This federal law allowed up to 12 weeks of leave, however, businesses were not required to pay their workers. This law, although a small step in the right direction, completely dismisses the necessity of paying care workers and the work itself. Although this law applies to everyone regardless of gender, care work most often falls on women. Rather than navigating a healthy balance, women are again forced to choose between careers and their families.

Now that I’ve pointed to this injustice, what are some ways to combat it? Many businesses and corporations have already made efforts to strike a better balance. For example, Microsoft has a policy which ensures at least 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave for parents (Microsoft). Patagonia is another employer which acknowledges the importance of care work and has ensured various policies are in place to maintain an inclusive work environment.

Businesses providing fair policies conscious of the role of care work is a necessary step in ensuring a more just economic system. Although there has been federal recognition of care work, it still fails to provide compensation for workers taking time off for the care of their families. This speaks volumes. Women are still expected to take on caregiving responsibilities and the devaluation of this work limits the economic and social mobility of millions. Businesses should continue to take strides to address this issue with or without the backing of federal law to not only benefit themselves but the many employees, regardless of gender, who are depended on to maintain stability in the professional and personal lives of their loved ones.

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