From the TUC

Jobs gaps – the forward march of egalitarianism halted?

11 Aug 2015, by in Labour market

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s monthly employment statistics (it’s an exciting life at the TUC) and I’ve been thinking about the employment and unemployment gaps between men and women. In some respects, the convergence of men’s and women’s employment opportunities that we’ve got used to over a generation or more may have slowed to a halt with the recession, but in others the recovery has been stronger for women than for men.

We all know that women have a worse labour market position than men. In Jan – Mar 2015, for instance, men’s employment rate was 78.4 per cent and women’s was 68.6 per cent. But these differences have existed for a long time: five years ago, in Jan – Mar 2010, for instance, the employment rate for women was 65.6 per cent, while that for men was 74.9 per cent.

What is more interesting is to look at the gaps in employment and unemployment rates, and how these have changed over time.(*)  Over the long-term there has been a clear trend for men’s employment rates to come down and for women’s to rise. In Jan – Mar 1971, the employment rate for men was 92.1 per cent; that for women was 52.8 per cent. In Jan – Mar 2015, the equivalent figures were 78.4 and 68.6 per cent.

As a result, the employment rate gap is now a quarter of the size it was 44 years ago:


When we look at the trend over this time scale we can see that the biggest reduction took place in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. But if we look at the last twenty years more closely it becomes clearer that the shift did continue – at least in the late 90s and 2000s:


Since the recession the gap has essentially flat-lined at about ten percentage points. A complication we need to take into account is the increase in women’s state pension age that has happened since roughly the same point. The Office for National Statistics produces employment figures for men and women under state pension age. We need to be careful about using them as they are only produced on a non-seasonally-adjusted basis, but they do reveal a similar picture:


It is important to note that, although the gap has not shrunk, men’s and women’s employment rates have both been growing:


If we turn to employment levels, the gap between men and women has shrunk from about 2.5 million in the early 1990s to about 2 million today. This gap is mainly accounted for by the gap in the numbers of self-employed workers. From a traditional point of view, one surprising fact about today’s labour market is how small is the gap in the number of men and women in employees. In Jan – Mar 2015 there were 408,000 more men employees than women – very small in the context of a total of 26.3 million employees altogether. Women accounted for 49.2 per cent of employees.

Another way of looking at this is to say that eighty per cent of the employment level gap is down to the fact that men are so much more likely than women to be self-employed. The chart below shows that the shrinking employment level gap is mainly accounted for by the shrinking employee level gap – there have been about 1.6 million more men in self-employment throughout this period.


The unemployment story is rather different; in the 1970s women had a higher unemployment rate than men but since then the male rate has been higher. Both show the importance of the economic cycle.


Over the period covered by the chart above, women’s average unemployment rate has been 6.7 per cent, men’s 7.6 per cent. The difference is mainly because unemployment in the 80s and 90s recessions can be said to have hit men harder than women – over 10 per cent for a longer period in the former and reaching a much higher peak in the latter. The picture has been a little different in the most recent recession. For men, the recession’s impact on unemployment was very rapid: in Mar – May 2008, men’s unemployment rate was 5.5 per cent and fourteen months later it had reached 9.0 per cent. Women’s unemployment rate in Mar – May 2008 was 4.8 per cent; it never increased by as much as 3.5 points, but it continued rising after the male rate had levelled off and did not peak till Dec – Feb 2012, when it reached 7.7 per cent.

In some respects, the jobs recovery has benefited women.  Between Mar – May 2008 (just before the recession) and the same period in 2015, men’s total employment had risen 440,000, but just over half (233,000) was accounted for by the increase in self-employment and more than three quarters (353,000) by the increase in people working part-time. The number of employees working full-time was actually 17,000 lower. This table looks at change in the seven years since the recession and in the seven years before the recession:


I’ve used Jan – Mar quarters throughout. We shouldn’t be surprised that jobs grew more in the first period, the other one does include a recession. Self-employment and part-time employment accounts for a higher proportion of the increase in the more recent period especially for men; in fact, the increase in the number of part-time self-employed workers was equal to was equal to 32.3 per cent of the total increase for women and 31.4 per cent of the increase for men. I’m particularly struck by the fact that men make up nearly half the increase in part-time employment between 2008 and 2015, given the fact that three –quarters of part-time workers are women.

I’m also struck by what has happened to part-time work since the recession. Although the number of women working part-time has increased, this has been in line with the overall increase in the number of women in employment and the proportion has hardly shifted, rising from 42.1 to 42.3 per cent. The proportion of men working part-time has risen significantly, from 11.2 to 12.9 per cent.

But women still dominate part-time employment. And the reciprocal of that is that employees working full-time are still far more likely – more than one and a half times as likely – to be men. Indeed, even though the number of women working full-time as employees has risen and the number of men has not, the share of full-time employee jobs taken by women has hardly budged. This is in contrast to the period before the recession, when this figure was rising markedly:


I’ve previously noted that the long-term decline in the number of women economically inactive because they are caring for their family or hone seems to be slowing to a halt. This is another straw in the wind – I think many of us have assumed that the labour market was headed inevitably towards an end point where gender differences would simply even out. I’m increasingly coming to believe that there’s nothing inevitable about it and that we need a government committed to promoting egalitarian outcomes.


(*)The headline employment figures in the monthly labour market statistics are for the number of people aged 16 and over in employment (the employment level) and the proportion of economically active people aged 16 – 64 who are in employment (the employment rate). These two age groups are commonly referred to as “adults” and “working age”. Where possible, I have followed that convention in this note, providing the employment rate for working age people. I have also followed the conventions in the monthly data by using the unemployment rate for adults.