By Eva Matos

Credit: Gabriela Carvalho PH, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Achieving gender equity doesn’t require better arguments or more evidence, it needs new narratives. Last year, Argentina’s marea verde, or green tide, delivered a sweeping abortion reform, moving the needle in favor of gender equity in a society that’s still influenced by prevailing Catholic values and norms that stigmatize a woman’s right to choose. Millions of Argentinians took to the streets to celebrate the landmark bill, and its rallying cry: “educación sexual para decidir, anticonceptivos para no abortar, aborto legal para no morir,(or, ‘sexual education so we can decide, contraceptives so we don’t need abortions, and legal abortions so we don’t die’) inspired feminist movements and other civil society groups working for increased women’s rights throughout the region. But despite recent wins, Argentina, like many countries, is still far from achieving equal rights for women, and narratives are a part of why. In the first of a two-part series, I’ll start to unpack some of the behavioral barriers at play. 

Why is the political economy for issues impacting women’s rights and equal standing in society so difficult to shift in Argentina? Our Economic Justice team’s work changing narratives around poverty in the U.S. suggests that to unlock the kinds of policies and programs that promote equity and dignity, we need to uncover and dismantle the often false and harmful stories we hold about each other. Just as we unconsciously hold narratives around poverty and how it happens, we all have a powerful, unconscious script about what women should or should not do, what women deserve, and even what it means to be a ‘good’ mother. How we define womanhood may be based on what we’ve seen in our families or in popular culture and movies. I personally come from a Venezuelan family with very traditional gender roles – my father is the breadwinner and my mother stayed at home to raise me and my sisters. This seemed so normal that I didn’t question that division of labor until well into my 20s. 

We see the same gender roles play out in mainstream media: in 2017, among the 100 top-grossing films globally, male characters were more likely than females to have work-related goals (41% vs 34%). And between 2006-2009, not one female character in films marketed towards people of all ages was represented as a business leader or in professions with stringent education and certification requirements such as medicine, law, or politics. Given all the signals we get about gender and work, and the narratives underpinning them, it’s no wonder we internalize ideas about what’s ‘normal’—sometimes without even knowing it.

At ideas42, we believe that as long as we hold onto prescriptive, false narratives about what types of jobs women should or shouldn’t do and even what constitutes ‘work’, women’s labor will not be valued equally, and therefore their place in society will not be equal. To begin the hard work of changing false and deeply embedded narratives, we partnered with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Argentina. We had two goals: first, to uncover the narratives that drive an unequal distribution of unpaid care work. Second, to design a social norms intervention to dismantle those narratives and replace them with new, more accurate ones that reflect the experience of women in the real world. 

We started by exploring how gender inequities around care work manifest in Argentina. The context is bleak: care work—activities that strengthen the health, safety, and emotional wellbeing of others—is invisible because it happens inside the home and is largely shouldered by women. Because it is invisible, it is also unpaid and undervalued, creating a vicious cycle that keeps women from making money for their labor while often excluding them from many paid economic opportunities. Indeed, we assign economic value to this work, it translates to more than 15.9%  of Argentina’s GDP with women contributing 76% of that effort. 

It also deepens income inequality. Women with higher socio-economic status can afford to pay for private care services and on average report spending three hours per day on care work while women living in poverty don’t have the option to externalize care—whether public or private—and are often forced to shoulder unpaid but important ‘community work’ like running neighborhood kitchens, taking care of neighbors, friends, or cleaning shared spaces. This is in addition to the family household work, where many women spend up to eight hours on childcare and housekeeping activities. This depresses economic mobility by increasing time scarcity on top of resource scarcity and toxic stress for women living in poverty, keeping them from joining the workforce and improving their livelihoods. 

We began to explore the narratives that create the conditions we uncovered in Argentina through an online survey with 1,010 respondents, and 15 in-depth interviews with adults that had at least one child in the province of Buenos Aires. We found there are clear ideas about how people conceptualize care and motherhood that get in the way of an equal distribution of care work in households: 

  1. There are new reasons for old sexism. Social desirability has changed the ways sexism crops up—the traditional narrative that defines women’s role as stay-at-home mothers and men as providers had very low endorsement in our survey (only 11% of respondents). The modern version is more subtle—people believe that women should stay at home for a different reason: “if they don’t, it has negative consequences for the child’s development” (29% of respondents). Narratives around masculinity also contribute to unequal distribution of care work. Men are considered less competent and responsible and therefore less critical to a child’s development. In fact, an ILO-led survey revealed that when asked what’s an important characteristic for someone to take care of children, 68% answered that being a woman was somewhat and very important. This preference was also reflected in our qualitative interviews: ideal external caregivers were often women, such as aunts and grandmothers, and at times, we were explicitly told they should not be men.

  2. (False) mental models of gendered parenting roles persist. ‘Good mothering’ is rooted in unachievable mental models that either keep women from considering re-entering the workplace or drown them in guilt if they do. Since a ‘good’ mother sacrifices herself for her children and is expected to be always present, a working mother is always lacking or struggling to live up to this expectation. Indeed, we saw high levels of guilt for working mothers overall. They feel guilty because their children take time away from their work and guilty because work gets in the way of spending time with their family. In interviews, women expressed the desire to go back to work to feel like themselves and have financial autonomy, with one woman saying, “If I need to buy a diaper, I’d like to pay for it myself instead of asking my husband.”

  3. Labor is selectively devalued. Care work is seen as ‘altruistic,’ meaning people should do it out of love or selflessness without expecting anything in return. By turning care work into an intrinsic value, there are no incentives to recognize it as labor and place a market value on it. Interestingly, when asked about other people’s endorsement of gendered narratives interviews, women shared, “Many think: the man works and puts food on the table…she doesn’t work, she’s a housewife, I would live for them to put themselves in our shoes, what we go through, what we resist so they’re comfortable, have a clean house, food. Many of them don’t value that or don’t see it.”

If we can shift how people conceptualize care from altruism to true work, as well as shift our mental models from masculinity being antithetical to care and femininity making someone an ideal caregiver to shared and equal responsibility, we can unlock the ability for women to achieve the same agency over their lives as men. Specifically, women would be able to enter and participate in the workforce meaningfully as they choose, achieve financial autonomy, and prioritize caring for themselves and living meaningful lives of their own choosing. 

In the next post, we’ll share how we co-created behaviorally-informed designs to begin to counter these narratives and reshape social norms in Argentina with ILO, civil society organizations, UN agencies, and other stakeholders in the country. Our hope is that we can contribute to the ongoing efforts by ILO and others that foster an equitable distribution of care work, allowing women to have the time they need to take care of themselves, join the labor force, or just watch a movie in peace (hopefully with a female protagonist that is fulfilled by more than her romantic relationships).