When the global financial crisis first hit the UK labour market in 2008 it was widely expected that in our increasingly service based economy women were likely to suffer more than in previous recessions. Moreover, when the coalition government began to cut public spending in 2010 women were again expected to bear the brunt of the impact of job cuts given the relatively high proportion of women working in the public sector.
There is a widespread perception that these expectations have been, and continue to be, fulfilled. The Fawcett Society, a UK campaign group for women’s rights, talks of a ‘female unfriendly’ labour market. Last week BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour included an item on the particular difficulty faced by women aged over 50 in finding work. And the plight of women in the UK labour market has also been stressed in a recent report from the government sponsored Women’s Business Council “Maximizing Women’s Contribution to Economic Growth.” The report notes that over 2.4 million UK women are not in work but want to work, and also suggests that women are currently setting up new businesses at half the rate of men.
All this comes with repeated calls to government and employers to make a special effort to help more women into work. Yet while I fully agree with the need to return the economy to full employment, I’m not entirely convinced that women are suffering disproportionally. On the contrary, although men continue to have a higher employment rate than women, Office for National Statistics data, obtained from the Labour Force Survey, show that women have generally fared better than men in the five years since the start of the recession.
Since the first quarter (q1) of 2008 the number of women in work has increased by more than a quarter of a million (a net rise of 267,000, or +1.2%) while the number of men in work has fallen (a net fall of 70,000, -0.4%). The number of men in employment fell much more sharply than the number of women in employment in the two years to q1 2010 (-600,000 for men, -100,000 for women), increased by more than the number of women in employment in the subsequent two years to q1 2012 (+340,000 for men, +140,000 for women) but increased by less in the year to q12013 (+194 for men, +240,000 for women).
Most strikingly, the number of women aged 50 and over in employment is almost half a million (457,000) higher than at the start of the recession in 2008, the number of men in this age category in employment having increased by a quarter of a million (258,000). The employment rate of women aged 50-64 has increased by 3.3 percentage points since 2008. Employment rates have fallen for all other working age categories. As for budding entrepreneurs, women account for approaching two-thirds (203,000, or 63%) of the total net increase in self-employment since 2008, the number of women self-employed having increased by almost a fifth (19.3%).
Despite this, it is true that unemployment for women has risen sharply since 2008 and has been above 1 million since 2010. Indeed although the net increase in unemployment has been smaller for women than men since the start of the recession (408,000 compared with 492,000), in percentage terms unemployment has increased by more for women (+60%) than men (+53%). However, the net rise in female unemployment is due to job shortage rather than job loss, with a substantial net increase of 676,000 in the number of women participating in the labour market exceeding the net increase in the number of women in employment. Similarly, there is relatively little difference between the number of economically active and inactive jobless women who want to work (2.45million) and the corresponding number of jobless men (2.36 million). Moreover, the net increase in this so-called ‘want work’ joblessness since the start of the recession is larger for men (513,000, +27.2%) than women (470,000, 23.7).
While we need to get more women into jobs and close the gender pay gap – which, incidentally, has continued to narrow in recent years, so it can’t be said that the increase in the number of women in work is due to women becoming relatively cheaper to employ - the reality is that women have generally fared better than men in the labour market since the start of the recession. It’s therefore far from obvious that the problem of workless women deserves greater attention than that of workless men.