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ALEXANDRA FAGERBERG GLOB07

STUDYING THE GENDER


IMPLICATIONS OF BRITISH
SOCIAL POLICY WITHIN THE
REALM OF DOMESTIC CARE
INTRODUCTION
Throughout the 20th century work and family balance in the UK was struck through the
domestication of women coupled with exclusion from the labour force with varying degrees
of formality (Crompton and Lyonette, 2006). Leading up to the 21st century there has been
several notable changes in domestic arrangements and social policy, starting with great steps
taken by feminists in the 1970s to acquire equal rights to and at work regardless of gender.
With globalisation pushing for further needs for productivity gains and trends of dependency
on economic growth for governmental stability, the importance of improving womens
participation in the labour market has been seen as crucial. In tandem with this discussion has
been the rise of importance placed on social policies in relation to work and family
reconciliation. These policies have been praised following the results of early implementation
in the Scandinavian states, suggesting that they have an activating effect on womens
employment, improve gender equality and foster child development through quality care
(Morel, Palme and Palier, 2012).
This essay will discuss the relationship between social policies and gender equality in the
UK, looking particularly at the distribution of care work and policies in place to mitigate
gender gap effects within this field. Initially, this paper will study the existing policy
framework and normative context prevalent in the UK. This will be followed by an analysis
of the underlying policy themes, overall effectiveness and extent of support towards
attitudinal reform and greater gender equality. Finally, this essay will conclude that the UK
has some issues in regards to its domestic care provisions in order to promote labour
participation on equal terms in regard to gender, but manages to maintain high womens
employment nonetheless.

ALEXANDRA FAGERBERG GLOB07

WHY STUDY POLICY?


Applying social policy as a framework and lens to gain greater understanding into the
gendered attitudes and outcomes in the public and private sphere carries with it a variety of
strengths, but also some weaknesses.
A key reason for analysing the policies is that they provide key components which are
involved in the private domestic decisions of couples. They do this by providing either
incentives or disincentives for a variety of options (Institute for Government - Cabinet Office,
2010), thereby impacting the most beneficial set of options for the family unit, or conversely
the least appealing choices. For example, formal child care in the UK has historically been
perceived as both expensive and low quality. As a result parents are less likely to utilize
formal care, something which has made especially mothers unlikely to work longer hours or
during the early stages of the childs life. This in turn has reinforces perceptions of mothers
who leave young children to public care as being uncaring.
Further, Pfau-Effinger and Geissler (2005) point out in their volume that policies addressing
work/family reconciliation have been shown to be incredibly important in the process of
integration and inclusion, especially in regards to women. As such, they play a large role in
enabling women to be active in both public and private life to an extent that is equal to that of
their male counterparts.
Using social policy as proxy for changing gender attitudes also has a number of
disadvantages, which must be remembered throughout the analysis. Among these is the
question of causality, which often varies between countries and policies. Lewis (2006) argues
that family change (including the increase of the dual earner model and womens
participation in paid labour) has frequently been found to precede policy interest, illustrating
that policy may be catching up to current attitudes rather than helping shape them. Moreover,
policy has frequently been deployed with the intention to get women into the work force for
instrumental reasons rather than for purposes of equality (Morel, Palme and Palier, 2012).
While such goals are often admirable and include decreasing child poverty and improving
demographic stability, they should not be mistaken for genuine gender equality initiatives.

EXISTING SOCIAL POLICY FRAMEWORK FOR THE UK


Before further analysis is done its important to establish the current social policy framework
in effect in the UK, as well as ensure a broad understanding of the attitudinal context.

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Additionally, to keep scope manageable, this will be limited to considerations of domestic
care work in families, especially in regards to children.
Overarching trends of care work leaving the private sphere of the family and entering the
public sphere is evident in many countries. In the UK, the states role in reconciling family
responsibilities and employment is fairly recent and only initiated in the late 1990s (Hantrais,
2004). Further, work/family policies have been predominantly presented as employment
issues, in alignment with the strong cultural foothold in Britain of perceptions of people of
both genders as being fully individualized (Lewis et al., 2008). The underlying agenda has
been primarily interested in activation of employment for mothers, under a banner of
parental choice.
The rhetoric of choice has been incredibly strong in the UK. This is a natural result of the
robust non-involvement tradition in regards to the government and the private sphere. In fact,
such policy attempts have frequently been derided in the press as actions of a nanny state1.
The language throughout social policies is consequently almost exclusively gender neutral,
referring simply to parental figures. Despite this, leave policies and childcare provision
initiatives are almost solely directed at mothers and have not genuinely enabled fathers, thus
undermining concepts of real choice as merely rhetoric (Lewis et al., 2008). Examples of
this include leave policies where parental leave is merely minimal EU compliance, whereas
maternity leave pay was doubled during the 2000s and vastly increased from 14 to 52 weeks.
While maternity leave may be transferred to the father for the last 6 months, should the
mother wish to return to employment, the father receives a substantially lower rate of
compensation. Additionally, the title maternity leave sends clear signals for intended use.
Some of follows discoveries in Government policy documents showing that women wanted
longer paid maternity leave (DTI, 2000) which aligned well with research emanating from the
US about importance of one-on-one care in the childs first year (Gregg and Waldfogel,
2005), which were flourishing in the press at the time.
Other aspects of the choice rhetoric stand up better to scrutiny. Initially policy attention was
focused on the provision of childcare. Free part-time nursery care was made available to all
over 3s by 2008 (Gov.uk, 2015); for those who were younger care was mainly in the hands of
parents, grandparents and childminders. Primarily, however, childcare support has been

Any google search of UK Nanny State will return a pleathora of results, most in regard to the state and any
involvement in the private sphere or informational posts.
1

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accomplished through cash subsidies to providers and working parents. The policy goal was
straight forward: to improve mothers employment and increase early child learning. By
2005, such payments had amounted to 5.49bn (Brewer, Crawford, and Dearden 2005).
While cash payments enabled parents to choose the most suitable childcare choice for them,
the by far most popular option grandparents was excluded from the benefit reception and
childcare was predominantly directed towards the private sector.
As the UK did not engage in family- oriented social policy until fairly recently, especially in
regards to domestic care arrangements, it can be argued that all policy instruments are
relatively new. Applying a stricter definition which places a divide in the late 2000s,
however, enables greater understanding in regards to the extensions of British social policy
and care benefits. New instruments, such as the right to request flexible working for those
with children under the age of six, have been fairly cautious in their scope. Huge changes, on
the contrary, have been made to already existing policies. This includes the vast increase in
maternity leave previously discussed. Some of this, it has been argued, is due to the ease of
implementation for employers who are already familiar with existing policy instruments
(Lewis et al., 2008).
While UK attitudes are less traditional than those in some other European states, policymakers have nonetheless found that strong steering on the part of government to increase
participation rates among especially mothers of young children has been highly controversial
(Lewis et al., 2008). Policy attempts in this arena have thus been cautiously aborted.

ANALYSING IMPACT AND OUTCOMES


As noted above, work/family balance initiatives in the UK have become employment
policies. A similar trend can be seen at the EU level, where work/family policies have moved
out of the equal opportunities realm and into the Employment Strategy. This may also explain
the fact that initiatives are frequently implemented without pressure from below (Lewis,
2006), implying a level of proactive action which often is associated with economic policy
rather than social. Bonoli (2005) suggests that such policy changes are often the result of
trying to manage new social risks that have arisen. In this case, such risks are a reflection of
women entering the work force and consequent potential impacts on those previously reliant
on the access to unpaid care work, such as children. It has also brought up interesting aspects
in regards to the domestic care deficit and its gendered nature.

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Stier, Lewin-Epstein and Braun (2012) found that there were considerable differences
between men and women in the joint effect of policies and parenthood. Where policies
provided opportunity for mothers to reduce their childcare burden (especially through day
care centres) work/family balance was significantly improved. There was no comparable
effect for men, underscoring existing perceptions of childcare as womens work even in dual
earner promoting societies. This further illustrates the complexities in aspiring for gender
equality it is not enough to enable work force participation, in order to reduce work/family
conflict attitudes must be changed.
Schrober (2011) identifies the moment when couple enter into parenthood as a critical time in
the establishment of the gender gap. Up until the first child both men and women progress
similarly in regards to career and domestic work is not reported as contributing to work/life
conflict. After the first child, however, the amount of domestic work increases drastically,
and imbalance generally occurs. Considering the gendered nature of care work described
above, it is perhaps no surprise that the birth of the first child is associated with an over 10
percentage point decrease in womens labour participation (Eurostat, 2005). Further, low
levels of available child care may limit women from returning to the work force, thereby
increasing the gender gap further. In the UK, where norms favour women as the primary
carer, outsourcing of domestic work may be a more socially acceptable strategy than
negotiating greater involvement from fathers. However, in the case of low earning women,
inability to afford outsourcing of care work may result in personally having to make up for
the domestic care deficit (Schrober, 2011). According to research by Crompton and Lyonette
(2006) UK couples report the highest levels of work/life conflict out of the countries studied.
This suggested that despite some changes in gender role attitudes in the domestic sphere, long
working hours and lack of state supports for dual earners raised work-life conflict levels. This
explains further why families may seek to outsource domestic work to reduce such conflict.
Where families can afford to outsource domestic work this is often in the form of imported
labour, which is partially a consequence of the globalised nature of the modern economy. The
involvement of such labour is not uncomplicated, especially from an internationally
feministic perspective. Hassim (2008) discusses how wealthy Western women are importing
domestic work, which while resolving care deficits in host countries generates deficits in the
workers home countries effectively relocating the problem as a result of insufficient
family/work policies in the host country. Parreas (2003), studying several cases in the
Philippines, further shows how this can generate complicated political and private situations,

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where even successfully adapting children find themselves missing the physical proximity of
the emigrated parent. Instead, long-term solutions to the domestic care deficit needs to have
either a more localized solution or a solution which more fully addresses the concerns raised
by the globalised labour economy.
While many authors stress the importance of womens attitudes in regards to gender equality
(Schrober, 2011; Mohanty, 1991) also in regards to egalitarian domestic work distributions, it
is nonetheless central to consider the impact of mens attitudes and actions. Baldock and
Hadlow (in Kroger and Sipila, 2005) stress the importance of mens choices, on the basis that
these frequently structure womens choices. For example, Bianci and Casper (2004) suggest
that if men are not encouraged to reduce their working hours in order to be able to take on
more unpaid work, women may be unable to choose to increase their employment hours.
Baldock and Hadlow refer to this as the the male veto. UK men have gotten more involved
with childcare, which may be a direct consequence of the lack of adequate formal care
provision in the UK. This has been seen as partially forcing men into carer roles and
encouraging the implementation of sequential scheduling in order to minimize formal care
needs (Windebank, 2001). This due to the financial necessity of a dual earner model family
model. Even with this in mind, men have generally made minimal changed in relation to
unpaid care work. Consequently, effective alternate arrangements have become crucial for
female work force participation and equality.

The scope and intention of UK policy changes should also be considered. In many ways,
policy alterations in the UK have been designed to deal with immediate concerns as they
have arisen, often as a result of shifting family arrangements which accompany a dual earner
family model. In terms of reformative power, British policymakers have somewhat folded,
preferring not to risk offense or breaking perceived boundaries of the private versus the
public sphere in their promotion of womens labour market participation and family care
provisions. Other countries, such as Germany, have approached policy change with the
intention of much more profound social reform which truly promotes the adult worker model
(Lewis et al., 2008), including policies which aid in the equalizing of family responsibilities
and opportunities to fulfil this externally through high quality care.
It should be noted that while the UK has few supports in place for employed parents, it still
experiences high levels of employment among women (Crompton and Lyonette, 2006). This

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should be considered a result of wider national policy systems which have not been analysed
here. It is however important to note that state-provided extra family supports for caring are
not the only means of ensuring high levels of womens employment. Instead, womens
employment remains a function of these and other crucial wider economic and labour market
policies. Such policies include tax systems, employment protections and regulations, and
many more.

CONCLUSION
To conclude, several researchers agree that the UK is somewhat lacking in its provision for
work/family balance enhancing policies. Even so, much progress has been made over the last
15 years in regards to maternity leave and childcare provisions. It should also be noted that
while the UK may have been less adamant about reforms which impact gender attitudes, it is
generally marked by less traditional gender roles than most European states. Additionally,
womens participation in the labour force is high, both in regards to full time and part time
employment. British women do however also have one of the highest levels of work/life
conflict in a recent study, suggesting that it is not without great stress that high labour
participation and limited social provisions are able to coexist.
To some extent this has been seen as a consequence of presumptions of gender equal
individualization. The assumption that both men and women have equal ability to make free
individually-oriented choices that do not carry penalty due to breaking with traditional
expectations is not factually supported. In fact, men and women are not similarly situated in
the labour market in respect of wages, working hours, or even access to flexible working
patterns. Consequently, current policy trends may be actively antagonistic towards the kind of
individualized and flexible working lives that policy-makers envision and desire (Lewis et al.,
2008).
Many of the above depicted initiatives suggest an instrumentality to policies regarding
womens participation in the work force that should not be so easily dismissed. The rationale
for policies implemented frequently emphasises choice in a gender neutral fashion, but the
underlying motives are predominantly economic not egalitarian. For children in less affluent
areas the focus is on getting them into early learning programs and maternal employment
becomes a beneficial step towards that goal.

ALEXANDRA FAGERBERG GLOB07

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