The ignored plight of women who are carers

The term caring conjures up many warm, fuzzy feelings and images. Hopefully, most of us have experienced what it’s like to be lovingly cared for by a dear friend or family member.

Caregiving is rewarding, builds deep emotional connections, and helps others live more meaningful lives, especially when caring for someone with a chronic illness, disability, addiction, or mental health condition.

Yet, when we talk about caring, there are some glaring gaps in the conversation; things we don’t want to discuss. We often gloss over the fact that caregiving is unglamorous, challenging, lonely, and often thankless.

Women in Australia spend 64.4 per cent of their week doing unpaid care work, compared to 36.1 per cent of men. There are 2.65 million people in Australia who care for a person with a long-term physical or mental condition – that’s about 11 per cent of the population.

Even if you don’t realise it, you probably know someone fulfilling a caring role on top of all their other responsibilities.

Unsurprisingly, 70 per cent of these unpaid carers are women. For generations, the false idea that women were inherently more suited to caring roles because they’re ‘naturally’ nurturing, caring, and selfless has held women back from pursuing what they truly want.

Of course, some people are natural caregivers who genuinely enjoy spending most of their time caring, regardless of gender.

But for women who find themselves in a caring role through challenging circumstances, these false gender norms disguise a much more serious problem.

For every hour of gruelling, unpaid, and often unrecognised caring they do, they have less time and energy to pursue meaningful paid employment and nurture friendships, hobbies, and their own wellbeing.

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According to Carers Australia, the replacement value of unpaid care in Australia is currently $77.9 billion annually. This is the amount of money it would cost to pay qualified nurses or carers to do all the work done by friends, family members, and partners without any financial reimbursement.

If women perform 70 per cent of this unpaid care, we can estimate that women carers contribute $54.53 billion of unpaid work to our economy.

This seldom-discussed issue is inextricably linked to broader issues like the gender pay gap, sexism, and the societally entrenched values that pressure women to pick up the slack for their families and communities without complaint.

If they speak openly about their challenges, they are seen as uncaring, selfish, or somehow less ‘feminine’.

Men who pursue highly paid work over caring for their families or working in caring professions like nursing or teaching are seen as ambitious, go-getters and strong leaders.

The unspoken expectation to sacrifice one’s own dreams and ambition to care for those around them applies only to women.