El trabajo perjudica seriamente la salud (de las madres)

Work Seriously Harms the Health (of Mothers)


[This article was published on El Huffington Post, on the occasion of International Women's Day, on March 8, 2019. Image by Thedawn / Pixabay]

Over recent decades, the gradual incorporation of women into the workplace—together with the creation of a legal framework that guarantees them the same rights as men—is one of the factors that has contributed most to women’s personal autonomy and improved their social and economic status. Nevertheless, social change is a slow process and, to a great extent, gender stereotypes still prevail. While nine out of ten people in the European Union consider that promoting gender equality is important for society, the economy and for them personally, the majority (73%) believe that women still devote more time to work in the home and caring for others and 43% think that a woman’s most important role is the care of her home and family (Eurobarometer 2017).

Today, while women have entered the labour market, very often they are still responsible for the same domestic tasks as before. This is a subject that has been little studied, and scant evidence is available on the possible consequences of the new situation: for example, the impact on women’s health of their exit from the purely domestic sphere, the effects of the “double shift” they now work, and the effectiveness of the mechanisms in the workplace intended to ensure a good work-life balance.

Image: Rawpixel / Pixabay

Some of these issues were examined in a recent study in the United Kingdom of more than 6,000 employees—the largest longitudinal study to date. Of particular interest among the conclusions of that study was the level of chronic stress observed among working mothers. Stress was measured using biomarkers, including stress-induced hormones, blood pressure, and allostatic load index (a measure that determines the cost to the body of adjusting to predictable and unpredictable events, in other words, stress). A chronically high allostatic overload contributes to the development of disease. Among the full-time employees studied, women with two children aged under 15 years were found to have stress levels 40% higher than women with no children and 17% higher than those with only one child.

The study also found that the implementation of measures such as telecommuting and flexible timetables do not, in and of themselves, reduce stress levels; these measures only reduce stress when accompanied by reduced hours working arrangements.

Which groups in the working population have lower stress levels? People who work fewer hours experience less stress, irrespective of whether or not they are men or women or have children under their care; in other words, people who do not work full time. Women (with two or more children in their care) who worked fewer hours showed lower stress levels (37% less; a lower allostatic load) than women with the same number of children who worked full time.

In the European Union, one third (31.7%) of women in employment work part-time as compared to 8% of men

Women already intuitively knew the score: part-time work is a fully feminised option in the European Union, where about one third (31.7%) of women in employment work part-time as compared to 8% of men (Eurostat 2017). Almost 75% of women in the Netherlands work part-time and around 60% in Scandinavia. What is debatable is the extent to which these reduced hours working arrangements are a voluntary choice made by women who decide to prioritise their personal life or whether they are, in fact, imposed by the incompatibility of full time employment with the burden of care in the home. Some 26.2% of the women working part time reported that the arrangement was “involuntary”.

Imagen: Rawpixel / Pixabay

Furthermore, the choice of part-time work as a solution (for women) not only leads to a proportional reduction in income compared to full-time work but also to a series of other negative effects, including more precarious employment (lower-quality and lower-paid jobs), fewer opportunities for training and a professional career, as well as a reduction in social benefits (unemployment benefits, pension), and even negative health outcomes, the opportunity cost of which is borne primarily by women. All of this contributes to reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating gender gaps in the labour market.

Progress will, above all, require us to open up these "private" and social issues to public debate and political analysis

The personal is political. In practice, the care of minors and dependents and the division of labour in the home may appear to be personal issues devoid of any great political import. By any chance do these issues that directly affect half of the population and indirectly the whole population occupy an important place in the public debate? And, while part of the solution necessarily involves negotiating more equitable forms of relationships in the private sphere—especially when children arrive—progress will, above all, require us to open up these "private" and social issues to public debate and political analysis. Such a debate is the only way we can change the social structure, which has not changed at the same pace as the role of women in society, thus making it necessary for women to constantly adapt to the existing structure to the detriment of their life choices and, it appears, also their health.

Meanwhile, women respond to the dilemmas that arise with a greater or lesser degree of subtlety—socioeconomic level being the most determining factor—or they decide to live with the situation at the risk of having poorer health and quality of life. Don’t call it gender ideology. Just call it inequality.


Text by Anna Lucas, coordinator of the Maternal, Child and Reproductive Health Initiative at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a research centre supported by ”la Caixa”.