The Sexual Division of Labour Paradox

Care Crisis, the Welfare States and Global Care Chains

Note from the Author

The idea behind this final paper came out of the angst and some of the disappointment I faced while studying for our course Sustainability of Welfare State Policies during the Uppsala Semester. Aside from the quality of the course, I felt that there was a lack of discussion of the structures of capitalism in the general discussions of the course, particularly with regard to patriarchy and colonial power, points that to me are vital to addressing any kind of “sustainability” in our economic systems. To add a feminist appreciation and a North-South perspective to the final discussion, I chose the topic of care, which is central to today’s welfare policies in the context of ageing societies in European countries. Going deeper and reading more about feminist critique was also a challenge for me, in which I learned a lot.

Extract of Final Paper on Sustainability of Welfare States Course by Mariana Rettore Baptista

The ageing population and the increasing participation of females in the labour market in Europe over the past years have come to expose the problematics among the topic of care provision and generated a debate regarding the restructuring of the Welfare State. However, care has been a central topic within the feminist economic debate since the 1970s. The “Domestic Labour Debate” was introduced in the 1970s both by Marxists and Feminists and proposed to deeply discuss gender inequalities and their relations with the development of capitalism as a system (Carrasco 2003; 2013). For more than half a century of debates in the field, the contradictions acknowledged by those early feminists provided a theoretical framework that remains valuable to analyse today’s care crisis. One central concern of those early feminist economic was what Himmelweit (1995) described as the “discovery of unpaid work”. Beyond the recognition of the invisible character of domestic work, essential to social reproduction and mostly assumed by women, feminist scholars claimed its vital relationship with the sustainability of the capitalist system. This debate evolved during the 1990s and remains a central topic in the political economy of feminist economics, providing analytical tools to discuss the current care crisis and critically address the reforms adopted by the welfare states to deal with it. The increasing female participation in the labour markets had a direct impact on one central institution of welfare provision: the family (Döhner et al. 2008). Therefore, the increasing demand for care work in the central economies has influenced changes in policies from European countries. However, most of these policies has stimulated a racialized and gendered migration of care workers – a process described by some authors as the global care chains (Williams 2011).

This paper aims to investigate this migration pattern, its relation to the policy making of welfare economies and the structures that explain this movement of care workers. Thus, the second session briefly presents the theoretical developments of feminist economics regarding the sexual division of labour, which will fundament the critic of this essay. The third session discusses care regimes types in Europe and recent convergences in care policy adopted by Western European welfare states. The fourth session discusses these care policies outcomes highlighting their relation to the feminization of migration of care workers and the racial division of care work (Williams 2011) and the conclusion sums up the structures that operate the Sexual division of labour paradox. It is important to highlight that feminist economics as a research field is still under construction (Guimaraes 2017) and this text provides an approach that dialogues with the political economy debate within the topic. Also, for the same reasons, there is no consensus on the best term on how to address care work, which is why in the text numerous terminologies [1] are used to relate to caring provision: domestic work, domestic labour, care work, social reproduction, among others.

[1] Although there are some discussions among the topic, this paper does not explore this debate.

Feminist Economics and the Sexual Division of Labour Paradox

The increasing participation of females in the labour market has exposed the tensions between care time and market time. Because of that, household tasks and the time spend with care provision for relatives, children and the elder traditionally provided by women, became more often portrait in economic discussions in recent years, mainly when analysing gender inequalities. However, different authors had portrait this tension between market work (profit-centred) and domestic work (care-centred) within the feminist debates for at least half a century (Guimarães, 2017). The Domestic Labour Debate carried out both by Marxists and members of the feminist movement in the 1970s was a milestone in the discussions about the social role of women in the provision of care. One outcome of this debate was the creation of terms to better address the topic, one of them being the sexual division of labour (Carrasco, 2003; Hirata and Kergoat, 2007). The sexual division of labour as a term has been used in feminist debates and gender economics over the last decades and it includes two different approaches: on the one hand, the term is a tool to analyse the unequal distribution of work and gains between men and women in the formal labour market and, on the other hand, to analyse the unequal division of domestic labour and care work among sexes (Hirata and Kergoat, 2007, p. 596). In this paper, the second approach is used in order to provide an analysis of the systematic inequalities between men and women that are reproduced in the economic realities of the capitalist domain.

The sexual division of labour emerges from the social relations between sexes in which men are responsible for the production sphere and the reproduction tasks (domestic labour) are assumed by women. This division is operated according to two main principles: separation and hierarchization. In that sense, it means that workplaces are differentiated between sexes (separation) and second, that the male’s work (market production) is more valuable than women’s work (domestic labour) (Hirata and Kergoat, 2007, p. 599). The feminist approach reminds us that this configuration reproduces biological arguments to explain social roles that are performed within the economy. This division between sexes as a determinant of socio-economic roles and within the capitalist society is also explored by Carole Pateman (1988) in The Sexual Contract, which analyses the roots of the liberal tradition that assures the division between the public (as a male and valuable domain) and private (as a feminine undervalued domain) spheres of life (Guimaraes 2017).  

The absolute omission of domestic work that occurs in the private sphere and mainly assumed by women in mainstream economics is argued by feminist economists as an epistemological gap that results from a long liberal tradition, focusing on the homo economicus (Carrasco, 2003, P. 17). Life sustainability has never been a central analytical question to mainstream economic scholarship and that is why care work and reproduction are usually perceived as an “externality of the economic system” (Carrasco 2003, 2013). Therefore, feminist economics assume its theoretical rupture with mainstream economics with the “discovery” – or the uncovering – of the unpaid work that is developed within the private sphere and under the responsibilities of women. The uncovering of domestic labour and care provision is a theoretical turning point within the feminist economic critique, that gives support to the patriarchal [2] basis of capitalist accumulation (Federici 2004). The mass of unpaid domestic labour, operating under a private sphere and guaranteeing the reproduction of the labour force (the most valuable source of surplus-value under the capitalist system) is seen as an essential basis for the reproduction of capital (Federici 2004; Carrasco 2003, 2013). In that sense, capital accumulation is also possible by the indirect and free exploitation of female private care work. In contrast to the Smithian liberal concept, Carrasco (2003) argues for the “the powerful invisible hand of daily life” (p. 16). “El trabajo y la gestión realizada desde los hogares reproduce y cuida a toda la población y, en particular, reproduce la fuerza de trabajo diaria y generacional necesaria para la subsistencia del sistema de producción capitalista[3]”(Carrasco 2013, p. 44).

[2] The concept of patriarchy and its relations with the capitalist system are deeply explored by Federici 2004.

[3] “The labour done in the households reproduces and takes care of all the population, reproducing on a daily basis the labour force necessary for the sustainability of the capitalist production system”. (Translation made by the author)

This turn of the feminist economic literature was not only operated by the acknowledgement of the material relation between care work and capital reproduction, but also by a deeper evaluation of domestic work and its asymmetries to market-oriented work. In that sense, feminist economists develop an analysis of human social reproduction and its qualitative differential to the capitalist production work (Carrasco 2003, 2013). Domestic labour and the social reproduction of life does not only involve the provision of basic goods and services within the household to respond to human needs. This is because human needs are also related to social fulfilment, relationships and affection. In contrast to the production of goods and services for the market, in which the act of production is independent of who consumes it, when talking about care and domestic tasks that are employed to sustain life, it is more complicated to separate the affections and relations that are intrinsic to the activity of care itself. This means that for market production, even if there is some type of subjective involvement during the provision of a service or in the making of a certain good, it is not the main determinant of the activity. The same is not true when it comes to domestic and household care provision, because it is deeply related to who is consuming it, meaning that is possible that the same activity can have a market substitute to some and be irreplaceable for others (Carrasco 2007, p. 15).

One conclusion that emerges from the asymmetry between domestic labour and market work, is that the male type of work in the labour market cannot be generalised because it relies upon the freedom of time management, which does not correspond (and cannot easily be conciliated) with the times of care (Carrasco 2013). This means that the structural gender inequalities – here fundamentally considering the intersectionality with race and class – will not come by the marginal inclusion of females in the male job model, but only by a deeper change in the economic system. Otherwise, the contradictions between care and capital will only be partly solved by the transferring of the care “burden” to “others” – usually, women from the Global South.  

the possibility of one woman getting into the formal labour market relies upon another woman assuming the care services, under precarious conditions and usually marked by class, ethnic, and racial discrimination

The virtual attenuation of the sexual division of labour with the higher rates of female participation in the market in the Global North countries relies upon precarious domestic labour and care workers coming from abroad. Hirata and Kergoat recognise that the conquests made by women in the North occur at the same time as the feminisation of migration movements to attend a specific demand for care workers in the central economies. This is described by the polarisation of female workers. In this sense, the Sexual Division of Work Paradox described by Hirata and Kergoat (2007), “where everything changes but nothing changes”, emerges in the context in which the possibility of one woman getting into the formal labour market relies upon another woman assuming the care services, under precarious conditions and usually marked by class, ethnic, and racial discrimination. The paradox results in the internationalisation of reproductive work because of higher externalisation of domestic labour (Hirata and Kergoat 2007, p. 605). The next sessions will briefly explore the contemporary re-configurations of the sexual division of labour in the context of the care crisis in the central economies, exploring care policies and welfare arrangements to deal with long term care, especially in Western European countries.

 Global care chains and the racial division of reproduction work confirms that care services persist as an undervalued task. It is valid to restate that, besides the focus on LTC on this paper, the feminisation of migration also responds to different care and domestic labour related tasks: as cleaning, laundry, nursing, work as nannies, among others. Many “low-paying jobs created in advanced, capitalist countries are considered traditional ‘women’s work.’ As a result, many of the immigrants who respond to the increasing demand for low-wage workers in advanced, capitalist countries are women” (Parrenas 2000, p. 564). In that sense, the sexual division of labour paradox argued by Hirata and Kergoat (2007) is expressed by these feminized global care chains, enhanced by intersectional inequalities and social injustices. “As women transfer their reproductive labor to less and less privileged women, we can see that the traditional division of labor in the patriarchal nuclear household has not been significantly renegotiated in various countries in the world” (Parrenas 2000, p. 578). While the care crisis remains insufficiently solved by the reliance in global care chains – with colonialist roots – the paradox operating under accumulating inequalities of gender, class and race will continue to persist.

In a context where women globally are taking on more responsibilities to earn income without a significant reduction of their care responsibilities the transnational movement of women into care and domestic work in private households represents a profoundly asymmetrical solution – not only between women and men but between poorer and richer regions - to women’s attempts to reconcile these dual responsibilities (Williams 2011, p. 5)


The care crisis in Europe due to economic, social and demographic factors is increasing demand for care workers which has affected global migration patterns. The policy responses of the welfare states of Western Europe have tended to adopt mixed solutions, relying in the complementarity of the two ideal types in the care regime spectrum: informal carer-led and service led. However, due to the welfare retrenchment and the budget constraints of mature welfare states, the need for cheap care provision has incentivised the use of migrant care workforce both in the formal and informal sectors of care provision. Moreover, the welfare reforms tend to convergence to the increasing use of cash benefits, and therefore, towards a higher commodification of care. The consequences of this policy reinforce the grey economy of care, also highly responded by migrant work force and often under precarious, unregulated labour relations (Döhner et al. 2008; Anderson 2012; Pavolini and Ranci 2008).

Finally, returning Hirata and Kergoat’s paradox, in which “everything changes but nothing changes”, this article tried to expose the basis contradiction of the capitalist system founded under patriarchal rules. The welfare response to the care crisis is partly solved by global and transnational care chains which provide low paid care workers – that often embodies gender, racial and class inequalities – to central economies (Carrasco 2003; Hirata and Kergoat, 2007, Williams 2017). However, the care crisis in its global dimensions will not be solved while capital reproduction remains the central to system, and the matters of care and social reproduction of daily life continue being an undervalued, seen as an externality and a “burden” to the system (Carrasco, 2013). Feminist economists has a lot to contribute into this epistemological turn.  

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List of references

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