In 2016, we simply decided to declare 29 February ‘Equal Care Day’. The media and political response revealed how important an initiative of this kind would be, while the many reactions of those affected, from academia and interest groups immediately established the special day’s place in the calendar. Since 2016, leap day has now truly become ‘Equal Care Day’. A casual idea has become a societal initiative that unites people nationwide and now even internationally, that strives to increase appreciation, visibility and promote a fair distribution of Care Work.

The German Federal Government’s Second Equality Report in 2017 finally cemented the position of the ‘Gender Care Gap’ in public debate. A scientific study initiated by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs (BMFSFJ) and funded by the EU followed, with the aim of investigating the roots of gender inequality in the distribution of Care Work, and developing solutions. The ‘Sorgearbeit fair teilen’ (Fair Distribution of Care Work) alliance was founded in 2020 as a follow-up project, and structurally integrated in the Deutscher Frauenrat (National Council of German Women’s Organizations).

These two BMFSFJ initiatives focus on the private Gender Care Gap. And there is no question that fair distribution of Care Work in families, residential communities and couples is an important prerequisite for an equitable society. However, the way gainful employment and the professional lives of many people are organised requires them to outsource substantial aspects of their own care responsibility to other women. Accordingly, the private Care Gap is closely linked with the professional Gender Care Gap and with the Gender Gap in the shadow economy and can therefore not be considered alone.

Care chains – the international dimension of the care gap

It only makes economic sense to outsource care work because the remuneration is substantially lower than other forms of employment. This is the root cause of the extreme shortage of specialists in the care- and education sectors that has persisted for years, and, in consequence, in state-subsidised or shadow economy migration. Ultimately, we are shifting our problems abroad, to countries that are already economically worse off than Germany and the western world. The inadequate pay in the care sector is necessary to maintain a system that outsources responsibility, instead of taking it on. – By the way, this does not only apply to the care sector, but also to environmental protection.

As part of the ‘konzertierte Aktion Pflege’ (Concerted Care Campaign) in summer 2019, Minister of Health Jens Spahn announced that Germany would seek to recruit care staff and medical specialists from Mexico, Kosovo and the Philippines. The informal ‘24h in-house care’ pathway brought women from Poland and other Eastern European countries to Germany to look after people here who need help and care – a job for which they are often unqualified. Even though the Federal Republic of Germany ratified ILO Convention 189 ‘Decent work for domestic workers’ as far back as 2013, the working conditions here remain precarious and often questionable from a labour law perspective.

In both cases, Germany, as a prosperous nation, is at the top of a care chain. All of these women have families, children, grandchildren, relatives in need of assistance whom they leave behind in their home countries, delegating their care and support to other women, their own mothers or women from countries that in turn are worse off. This continues until no care is provided; but that is far away from here and is ignored, invisible, like Care Work as a whole.

More than clean and fed

Communication and the debate on Care Work often fail due to the fact that too many people, especially men, are not aware of what care work means and comprises in detail, as they did not learn it as children, and did not have to learn it, unlike their siblings categorised as females. For one group, Care Work is so natural, and yet it is so distant for the other group that both sides are hardly aware of the extent and dimensions of Care Work, and much remains unsaid. For example, the burden of responsibility, known as the mental load, is largely excluded from the debates and studies. It is difficult to estimate and therefore is only mentioned in the margins of the German Federal Government’s Second Equality Report or comparable studies. More than the quantifiable time taken, it is the unspoken mental load that makes it so difficult to impossible for caregivers to engage, involve themselves and participate in other areas of society, whether in politics, culture and science, or at professional and economical levels.

Mental load is the totality of all responsibilities a person takes on in managing the memory of all the unseen things that need to be done. That means managing relationships and emotions within a group, a team or a family, and coordinating, administrating and maintaining workflows and tasks – a misunderstood and overlooked responsibility typically imposed on women in working teams and even more so in families. As this responsibility is not considered work, has never been borne by many, it is often not perceived and therefore not appreciated.

As part of the ‘Equal Care Day’ initiative, we developed the ‘Mental Load Test’ with Johanna Lücke, a survey to identify quickly and simply how Care Work is actually distributed in one’s own family, as well as in residential communities or other communities of responsibility. The Head of the Center for Gender Studies, Professor Zuhal Gündüz from TED University Ankara, and her team are currently translating the test into Turkish and Arabic, and adapting it to living conditions in Turkey. From 2021 on, the test is to be used in scientific work to calculate valid statistics that go beyond mere calculations of the time taken, as in other studies.

The long term goal is to further refine the ‘Mental Load Test’ as an instrument for different living situations and societies, and expand its contents to describe and evaluate international relationships.

A mental load test for international relationships

The willing and seldom questioned outsourcing of the responsibility for care clearly shows the lack of value attached to it, both financially and ideologically. That begins in the core family and pervades all strata of society, right up to the calculation of the GDP. While GDP is considered an indicator of a society’s prosperity, it completely ignores unpaid private care work, as though an economic system could function without care work. Obstetrics, care and upbringing of children, education and social work, the many everyday household jobs: feeding, balancing, recuperation and self-care are the real basis of any economy, and the fair distribution of care work is a fundamental prerequisite for an equitable society.

Only if Care Work is distributed fairly between the genders, and also between rich and poor, natives and migrants, only then do all people have equal opportunities to participate politically and economically, professionally and privately in society, culture and science, at all levels and hierarchical strata. And that applies not only within a society, but can also be extrapolated to international relations: as long as women from Eastern Europe leave their families to care for people in need of care in German households, as long as we recruit specialists from other countries, harnessing their good education and knowledge to compensate for personnel shortages in the care sector here, as long as migrant workers from Eastern Europe keep the foodstuff sector in Germany running, and we dispose of our electrical and plastic waste in the Global South – we are propagating inequality and preventing independent social and economic developments.

On a pathway to a caring democracy

Selfishness is the opposite of Care and Care Work. Those who outsource or even deny their own responsibility for care are selfish, not per se, but very much so in a system that holds Care Work in such low esteem and punishes caregivers financially and ideologically. That is true both on a micro-scale in the core family and on a macro-level in international relations.

The restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic and the increasingly obvious effects of climate change clearly show how necessary fundamental systemic change is, towards an economic order and an understanding of economics that is aware of its roots and returns to the initial concept of oikonomia (literally the study of house keeping), or how the means to satisfy human fundamental needs can be manufactured, distributed and used or consumed most expediently.

Whether in care, environmental protection or production of food, clothing (and protective equipment during pandemics), outsourcing care work and the responsibility for care exacerbates the inequality between peoples of different backgrounds, classes and genders at economic, political and social levels, as well as at a global level between east and west, north and south. Fair distribution of care work and the responsibility for care is the key to equitable relationships and justice, individually and globally. Anything else is selfishness, whether open or covert.

Almut Schnerring + Sascha Verlan

founders of the 'Equal Care Day'-initiative