The Final Frontier in Gender Equality

The World Economic Forum's (WEF) "Global Gender Gap Report" released last week disclosed that economic parity between the sexes will take another long 217 years. Economic participation is determined by equal pay, paths for advancement, and support programs. And yet there is a silent crisis that impacts women's participation in the workforce and will prolong global parity further and is not mentioned anywhere in the WEF report. The crisis has to do with our massive global aging population and the fact that taking care of aging and sick family members is still predominantly unpaid women's work.

Older adults require a considerable amount of time and attention, much of which is not provided by the healthcare system and not covered by health insurance -- helping with daily activities (showering, dressing, cooking), managing finances, and providing companionship and social stimulation. For aging adults with chronic conditions, like Alzheimer's and Diabetes, the logistical and administrative tasks are even more onerous and complex, like managing prescriptions, scheduling doctor's appointments, contesting and negotiating insurance claims and navigating legal documents.

Women today provide the lions' share of caregiving support. For example, in the US, daughters are 28% more likely than sons to care for aging parents. And the caregiving burden is large and growing. To put it in perspective, four million babies are born AND four million people turn 65 each year. Plus, the over-65 population is predicted to rise 20% by 2030. On top of the swelling aging population, lifespans and comorbidities have increased, which means that older adults will live longer than ever before with more chronic conditions than they were previously able to survive, placing additional and prolonged pressure on family members.

In the meantime, female participation in the US workforce has increased over the last several decades so that about half of US workers are now women. The problem is that many of these women are also juggling caregiving, which is emotionally taxing and time intensive, on top of their 9-to-5 jobs. Of the 75 million working US women, approximately 25 million are female caregivers.

Women who are caregiving suffer from job performance and career advancement issues. A 2017 Good Housekeeping Institute survey talked to women caregivers. Among caregivers spending 30+ minutes per week on caregiving activities, 48% reported their stress levels as being "a lot". Additionally, nearly two thirds feel that caregiving impacts their career performance, due to having to take time off, conflicts with scheduling, and using office hours to get non-work items done. Nearly half of respondents feel that they do not have their family's health care activities "under control."

The WEF study is not alone in missing this significant trend. Most American companies are not focused on helping their caregiving employees. Yet providing caregiver support will help attract, retain, and advance more talented women.

November is National Family Caregivers Awareness Month. Together, we must acknowledge the critical contributions that informal family caregivers (mostly women) provide to their loved ones and to society, and address the fact that this often comes at the cost of their careers.