Middle-aged women who are taking care of an elderly family member are less likely to be employed than their non-caregiving peers, according to a new study from the University of Calgary.

In an unfortunate (yet unsurprising) twist, only the occupations of the gentler sex appeared to be affected by caregiving. For men, providing for an elderly loved one had no significant impact, positive or negative, on their job status.

Study author Yeonjung Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at the University of Calgary says the gender discrepancy is likely due to multiple factors.

For one thing, women are more likely to engage in the hands-on tasks of caregiving (bathing toileting, dressing, etc.), which may make it more challenging for them to balance work duties with caregiving.

This often results in what sociologists refer to as "role strain," a scenario where an individual is presented with competing obligations that negatively affect their wellbeing. Stress and prolonged periods of role strain contribute to caregiver burnout. "Role enhancement," the opposing theory to role strain, takes the position that adopting multiple roles can be beneficial. For instance, family caregivers may find that their job offers them a welcome reprieve from their eldercare duties.

A second factor that is potentially driving female caregivers out of the workforce is the fact that women tend to make less money than men. If one person in a couple must quit their job to care for an elderly family member, the individual who is making less money would be the most logical choice to resign.

Income and education level may also have an impact— researchers found that people in lower paying jobs and those with fewer years of education under their belt were less likely to have access to flexible work schedules and options for paid leave.

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The lasting effects of foregoing a paycheck

For family caregivers forced into unemployment, a few missed paychecks can have a significant impact on their professional and financial future.

Factoring in wages lost by not working, as well as reduced career earning potential and subsequent Social Security benefits, the average female caregiver's lifetime monetary loss is a staggering $324,044, according to a MetLife Mature Market Institute investigation.

Even if they don't stop working altogether, more than six in ten women caring for an elderly loved one are compelled to make concessions at work.

Opting out of the workforce—even if it's only for a few months, until an elderly loved one gets settled in a senior living facility—can substantially degrade a woman's ability to find another job. Research shows employers are more likely to follow-up with people whose experience does not match a posted job description than they are to contact those with the necessary skills, but who'd been unemployed for more than half a year. This trend holds true, regardless of how the out of work individuals had lost their previous jobs.

Helping women remain in the workforce

Preventing these dire facts from destroying the careers of the ever-increasing numbers of female caregivers will require a multi-pronged approach, according to Lee. "I believe there is a way to help transform the ‘role strain' scenario to a ‘role enhancement' scenario for working family caregivers," she says.

Her suggestions for making the working world a friendlier place for women who are juggling caregiving and working include:

  • Increased accessibility to support groups and community assistance programs.
  • Support in the workplace in the form of understanding management and assistance with gaining respite care and other resources for a loved one.
There are additional things that out of work caregivers can do to help ensure they are still hirable, including keeping career skills sharp while caregiving and making the most of work from home opportunities for caregivers.