A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

If we want women and families to thrive, we need to reboot the way we care for each other

6 min
by Patrice Martin, Matt Taylor, and Melanie Bell-Mayeda
America’s caregiving system has long been insufficient to meet the needs of working women. And that was before the pandemic. In 2020, women’s unpaid caregiving work spiked as mothers disproportionately took on the responsibility of supervising online school, among other domestic responsibilities. These pressures, along with factors like the pay gap, have forced many women from the workforce, particularly women of color. Deepen your understanding of the current crisis with this clear-eyed summary of how we’ve undervalued the work of caring for each other in this country, and get inspired by the opportunities the authors see to design solutions that improve millions of lives.

As infants, as growing children, when we’re sick or injured, and when we grow old, we thrive because we have people who take care of us. Caregiving is the most valuable thing we can do for one another. And yet, our society gives this work very little attention. Caregiving is largely invisible. It’s something we assume women will do—mostly for free—on top of everything else on their plates each day.

We know women do more than five years of unpaid caregiving work than men over the course of their lives, and we know that this has myriad social and economic consequences, such as straining mental health and perpetuating the wage gap. To dig into the reasons for this great imbalance, we formed a community of partners—Pivotal Ventures, Caring Across Generations, Urban Sitter, The Better Life Lab and Double Bottom Line Ventures —and set out to learn directly from families and the innovators trying to support them.
Anita crouches in her cul de sac with her daughter, who is riding a toy bike
Photo courtesy of IDEO
We sat down with families, looking to understand their holistic caregiving experiences. In total, we talked with 142 people, representing diverse perspectives, family structures, socioeconomic status, geography, and more, and spent over 290 hours in conversation with them exploring questions such as:

  • How do you think about care in your life? How do you feel about it?
  • How do you make caregiving decisions?
  • What do you aspire to change in your life?

Patterns and themes quickly emerged across three areas: the work of caregiving; women’s and men’s relationship to and experience of care; and the systems around families that intersect with and affect care.

READ: To achieve gender equality, we need to support men as caregivers

The work of caregiving: While care work is universally similar, it’s also nuanced and different in so many ways. It’s childcare and it’s taking care of the aging, but it’s also grocery shopping, getting dinner on the table, drop-offs and pick-ups, doctor appointments, laundry, cleaning, finding summer camps, remembering medications, stretching a budget, and so much more.

Women and men’s relationship to and experience of care: The mothers we spoke to talked about the joy, power, and sense of identity that can come from motherhood, while also sharing how the hidden work of motherhood can leave them feeling unseen and undervalued. We found that men can and want to play a larger role in the home, but often lack the support systems and role models to do so.

The systems around families that intersect with care: Families are doing all of this care work while working one, two or more jobs. We found families overwhelmed and exhausted by the realities of modern life. And we found that change on an individual level isn’t enough as the system—work, community, schools, caregiving facilities for children and older adults--pulls people back to traditional roles in big ways and small. Families feel pressure to figure this all out on their own, as a personal struggle, rarely acknowledging the systemic barriers holding them back.
Analisa sits at the table eating dinner with her father and child
Photo courtesy of IDEO
What struck us, as we reflected as a group on our conversations with families across the country, was that our entire approach to caring for others needs a reboot in order for women and families to thrive. We need to intentionally design ways of giving and receiving care that better reflect the economic and demographic realities facing our country, that give women and men more choice and time, and that elevate the joy in care.

Imagine a world in which choosing between a paycheck and family wasn’t a catch-22. Where men and women were true equals both at home and at work. Where care work was visible—and valued. To get there, we need quality, trusted, accessible solutions for everyone. Better and more childcare, new models for aging in and outside the home, new ways to distribute household labor, new systems aligned around family needs (schools, healthcare) and more.

Our next step was to discover what innovations were already out there, seeking to reinvent our approach to care. We held design sprints with 15 innovators, from entrepreneurs with technology solutions, to nonprofits delivering childcare services, to policy organizations advancing bold new care policies, and asked them questions such as

  • What opportunities do you see?
  • What constraints are we up against?
  • What are barriers to scale?
It’s time to move beyond our outdated model that women should do this work for free at the expense of their full participation in the world.
The headline from these sprints: The opportunity for innovation in care is immense, and these pioneering innovators are carrying a lot on their shoulders. They’re working to make care more visible and valued, whether it’s in bringing investors, donors, and policymakers, or helping customers understand that solutions to their challenges exist. They’re also working to deliver products, services, policies, and stories that address complex human emotions around care, namely trusting others with some of the most intimate aspects of our lives and addressing the guilt associated with believing we should be able to do it all on our own. And they’re trying to stand up for a more equitable system, one that invites men and women in equally; ensures paid caregivers have the financial security, respect, and dignity they deserve; and respects and acknowledges all types of family structures. This is a tall order, and one we need to invite more innovators into, while simultaneously reducing the friction on their path to success.

Care is an opportunity for all of us to solve. It’s time to move beyond our outdated model that women should do this work for free at the expense of their full participation in the world. It is time to start recognizing care as a real and invaluable part of our lives, by seeing it, supporting it, and solving for it. It’s time to do care like we care.

Check out likewe.care to learn more.