Volunteering: One more demand on women's time?

Radhika Holmstrom

Volunteering is good for us all, and we ought to do lots of it.

It improves our physical and mental health, it builds up social capital, it will 'put something back into the community' and it might even help with a promotion at work. In reality, however, women's unpaid labour, whether it's formally counted as 'volunteering' or not, has always been the backbone of communities.

The figures on volunteering are less strikingly gender-weighted than one might assume. The 1997 figures cited by the National Centre for Volunteering suggest there are equal proportions of men and women in both formal and informal volunteering; as do the CSV figures for Make A Difference Day.

The story changes with time banks, where about two-thirds of volunteers are women and much of the emphasis is on human interaction, visiting other people's homes and reviving the 'sense of community' that in the past has been largely female.

But all of this ignores the work that isn't recognised as volunteering because women are doing it in their own homes - even though it would be volunteering if they were doing it for somebody else. According to Carers UK, up to the age of 64, more women than men are providing unpaid care for a sick, disabled or elderly person. Eleven per cent (compared with 7 per cent of men) are 'main carers'.

Then there is the care women do for children. Even the most positive spin - from Fathers Direct - on the amount of childcare that men do can only push it up to a third. And how about the work that is taken for granted within the home? The Office for National Statistics records that, outside childcare, women spend nearly three hours a day on household tasks, compared with one hour 40 minutes from men.

None of this detracts from the value of volunteering itself. But when politicians, employers and voluntary bodies exhort us to get out of our homes and into someone else's, perhaps they should look at who's doing the washing, cooking and caring at home. For some women, this is just one demand too many.

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