The Covid-19 crisis has unearthed a long pre-existing and much deeper care crisis. The EU Care Atlas illustrates the urgent need to look beyond the mere gender pay gap to understand the full extent of gender imbalances

Towards a 'care deal'
for the European Union

10 min read
Foto: Unsplash/Michael Lai

A society that values care and caring relationships would be not only nicer and kinder, but also more egalitarian and just.”[1] These words, termed by Professor Evelyn Nakano Glenn (Berkely University), quite tellingly encapsulate the stakes behind the need to politicise care. In the continuity of feminist research which has highlighted the direct relationship between inequalities, gender imbalances and caring already for decades, it is today more necessary than ever to measure – across multiple dimensions – those persisting care gaps in order to be able to address them.

Suddenly exposing deep cracks in our social welfare systems, the Covid-19 crisis has unearthed a long pre-existing and much deeper care crisis.[2] Society and families could be kept afloat thanks to all the invisible yet essential care work, whether formal or informal, disproportionately concentrated on the shoulders of women and the most underprivileged. With the advent of the pandemic, the idea of care is being rediscovered in policy spheres. The necessity to better value the care sector has come under the spotlight to become politically acknowledged. To a certain extent, the adoption of some form of care ethics could be detected in political discourse. However, beyond the symbolic clapping for care workers elevating them to heroes (or most accurately heroines), the true question lies in how far this nascent rhetoric for a “caring society”[3] can translate into concrete action living up to those values?

Despite the progressive advances towards gender equality, women continue working double shifts to unsustainable levels.[4] Umpteen reports namely point to the heavy blow dealt by Covid-19 to the feeble and painfully slow progress by the EU towards gender equality.[5] The long-standing care inequalities rooted in gender norms are identified as one of the main sources deepening social inequalities, thereby echoing a large international consensus ringing the alarm bell. [6] Long before the pandemic, the ILO issued a report already warning that “[if] not addressed properly, current deficits in care work and its quality will create a severe and unsustainable global care crisis and further increase gender inequalities in the world of work.”[7] Evidence unequivocally evidences how the pandemic exacerbated women’s economic disadvantages due to their unequal share of unpaid care responsibilities and their over-representation in undervalued and precarious jobs in the care economy.

In this context, the failure to collect data on women’s unpaid care workload heavily obscures the root causes of persisting gender gaps, most notably the employment gap, the part-time work gap, the time use gap and, in turn, pay and pension gaps. It is precisely to shed light on how care deficits directly feed and perpetuate gender inequalities in society at large that the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and Friedrich-Erbert Stiftung (FES) jointly launched their “EU Care Atlas” (https://feps-europe.eu/audiovisual/eu-care-atlas/). It illustrates the urgent need to look beyond the mere gender pay gap to understand the full extent of gender imbalances. For every EU member state, it offers gender-disaggregated data comparing the existing gaps across relevant fields contributing to the overall earnings gap.

It is argued that the burden of care work – both paid and unpaid – disproportionately shouldered by women is one of the main explanatory factors behind gender inequality. The Atlas namely shows that according to the EU average women are more than three times more likely to reduce their work time than men. Taking national variations into account, these differences become even more striking. The Netherlands for instance displays the highest percentage share of women working part-time with 56.8 % of Dutch women. It is followed by Germany, Austria and Italy where women working part-time (33.3%, 33.2% and 31.5% respectively) largely outnumber men who less commonly opt for this atypical and more precarious work arrangement (9.5%, 7.7% and 8% respectively). This is partly due to societal expectations, which are enshrined in law and in our economic modes of functioning assuming women as the primary carers. The resulting gender pay gap then feeds a vicious circle: it motivates a very rational decision for women, being the most likely lower earner in heterosexual couples, to be the one to reduce her working hours. However, the unpaid care work women carry out is more complicated than just a matter of “choice”, not to mention the complete lack thereof for single-parent families[8]. As quite eloquently put by Caroline Criado Perez, “[Our gender bias on care work] is built into the system we have created and it could just as easily be built out of it. We just need the will to start collecting the data and then designing our economy around reality rather than a male-biased confection.”[9]

If EU members states want to tap into the potentials of increased female labour market participation, they will not only need to ensure the effective implementation of the Work-life-balance directive[10] but also address the challenges raised by the cost and accessibility of public childcare[11] and long-term care support. An even more dramatic public intervention than parental leave would namely be to invest in social infrastructure.[12] That is precisely why research has been calling for a care-led rather than construction-led recovery.[13] In fact, it would include the public services that similarly underpinned the functioning of a modern society, like children and elderly care. The Women's Budget Group namely suggests that investing 2% of GDP in public services of care would create almost as many jobs for men as investing in construction industries but would create up to four times as many jobs for women according to simulation results from seven OECD countries.[14] Therefore, overcoming the male bias in how we structure our economy requires policy-makers to acknowledge the injustices inherent in patriarchy, in particular the association of care and caring with women rather than with humans, the feminisation of care work, the rendering of care as subsidiary to justice.[15]

In this light, the new EU Care Strategy launched on the 7th of September 2022 must be used as a springboard to shape and ignite this transition toward a more caring Europe. Initially announced during the 2021 State of the Union speech one year into the pandemic, it raised very high expectations. Today, this commitment was made a reality. Under the motto “it’s high time to care about care”, the European Commission more specifically unveiled two proposals for Council Recommendation on:

  • early childhood education and care (ECEC) updating the 2002 Barcelona Targets[16] from 33% to 50% of children below the age of 3 to be in ECEC and from 90% to 96% of children between the age of 3 and the starting age for compulsory primary education by 2023;
  • access to affordable high-quality long term care (LTC)[17] namely by ensuring LTC is timely, comprehensive and affordable, by increasing and diversifying the offer of professional LTC, by supporting informal care and ensuring adequate funding.

In this context, it will be crucial to assess how the feminist understanding of care, which has gained new impetus as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, offers new avenues to overcome the stalled advances towards gender equality. Unlike before the pandemic, talk of care is now everywhere. If the EU’s new Care Strategy is to be considered a success, the move to taking action in care policy must become tangible. Considering the sheer number of people affected by care imbalances in their everyday life, the stakes behind it are considerable. The Care Strategy might not only be a step in the right direction toward a real Care Deal for Europe[18] but also an incredibly impactful way of tackling its democratic deficit by giving centre stage to ordinary life and the continuous everyday care work necessary to life. In other words, the current momentum on care must be seized to elevate the basic values underpinning the feminist understanding of “care” on an equal footing with other, more widely acknowledged, basic values such as rights and justice maintaining that justice is incomplete without care and vice-versa.[19]


[1] Evelyn Nakano Glenn, "Creating a Caring Society", Contemporary Sociology 29, no. 1 (2000): 84.

[2] Emma Dowling, "The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It?", Verso Books, 2021.

[4] Suzanne M. Bianchi et al., "Housework: Who Did, Does or Will Do It, and How Much Does It Matter?", Social Forces 91, no. 1 (1 September 2012): 55–63; Massimiliano Mascherini and Martina Bisello, "COVID-19 Fallout Takes a Higher Toll on Women, Economically And Domestically", Eurofound, 2020.

[5] EIGE, "Gender Equality Index 2021 - Health" (Vilnius, 2021); European Commission, ‘2021 Report on Gender Equality in the EU’, 2021; Stefania Fabrizio, Vivian Malta, and Marina M. Tavares, "COVID-19: A Backward Step for Gender Equality", VoxEU.Org (blog), 20 June 2020.

[6] OECD, "OECD Employment Outlook 2021: Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis and Recovery", OECD Employment Outlook (OECD, 2021); UN Women, "From Insights to Action: Gender Equality in the Wake of COVID-19", 2020; UN Women, "Promoting Wome’s Economic Empowerment: Recognizing and Investing Int He Care Economy", 2018.

[7] ILO, "Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work" (Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2018).

[8] Single parenthood is strongly gendered: many more households with a single adult and dependent children are headed by women (11% in 2019) compared to men (3%), although this family form has also become more common among men. Source: European Parliament (2020). “The situation of single parents in the EU”.

[9] Criado-Perez Caroline. 2019. "Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men". New York: Abrams Press, p. 253. 

[10] The Work-Live-Balance Directive (Directive (EU) 2019/1158 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on work-life balance for parents and carers and repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU) was adopted in 2019 with the aim “to achieve a better balance between family and work obligations”. Member States were required to transpose the directive into national law by 2 August 2022 at the latest.

[11] See for instance FEPS Policy Study by Christian Morabito & Michel Vandenbroeck (2020) “Towards a child Union – Reducing inequalities in the EU through investments in children’s early years”, and the FEPS Policy Study by Francesco Corti, Christian Morabito, Tomas Ruiz & Patrizia Luongo (2022) “The role of the RRF in strengthening childcare policies

[12] Criado-Perez Caroline. 2019. "Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men". New York: Abrams Press.

[13] Jérôme De Henau and Susan Himmelweit, "A Care-Led Recovery From Covid-19: Investing in High-Quality Care to Stimulate And Rebalance The Economy", Feminist Economics 27, no. 1–2 (3 April 2021): 453–69

[15] Carol Gilligan, "Ethics of Care - sharing views on good care", 16 July 2011.

[16] Proposal for a COUNCIL RECOMMENDATION on the revision of the Barcelona Targets on early childhood education and care (2022)

[17] Proposal for a COUNCIL RECOMMENDATION on access to affordable high-quality long-term care – COM(2022) 441 (2022)

[18] Reka Safrani (2022). “Who cares? Why we need a Care Deal for Europe?”, Progressive Post

[19] Marion Barnes, ‘Participation, Citizernship and an Feminsit Ethic of Care’, in Care, Community and Citizenship: Research and Practice in a Changing Policy Context, ed. Susan Balloch and Michael J. Hill (Bristol, UK: Policy, 2007); Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency (Routledge, 2020); Selma Sevenhuijsen, ‘The Place of Care: The Relevance of the Feminist Ethic of Care for Social Policy’, Feminist Theory 4, no. 2 (1 August 2003): 179–97

This article is builds on the FEPS-FES Care Atlas as well as on the forthcoming FEPS policy study by Laeticia Thissen “Towards a Care-led Recovery for the European Union? A feminist care analysis of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans” in the framework of the FEPS Recovery Watch project.