Women in work: has the progress come to an end?
Welcome to the first in a series of five blogposts on gender and the labour market. I’m going to kick us off by putting today’s labour market statistics in their historical context. Then I’ll worry a bit about whether progress on employment gaps between men and women is coming to an end.
In the latest quarter there were 1,604,000 unemployed people, using the ILO definition of unemployment. This is the lowest level since the start of 2006. There were 876,000 unemployed men and 765,000 unemployed women, unemployment rates of 4.9 and 4.7 per cent respectively.
Long-term unemployment is falling for both men and women. Whilst long-term and very long-term unemployment are now below pre-recession levels for men, that point has not yet been reached for women. Extremely long-term unemployment is still above pre-recession levels for both sexes:
Change in long-term unemployment since April 2008, by gender
These figures are quite similar, but the Claimant Count (the number of people claiming Universal Credit or Jobseekeer’s Allowance) shows almost twice as many men claim UC/JSA as women:
Claimant count by gender (Oct 2016)
Men’s Claimant Count rate has been higher than women’s because criteria for National Insurance benefits for unemployed people require several years’ previous employment, paid at least above the Lower Earnings Level for most weeks in a year. These conditions exclude more women than men.
The ILO definition of unemployment has nothing to do with benefit eligibility, explaining why men’s and women’s rates are much closer. The 1.0 percentage point gap that has been averaged in recent months is the smallest in recent years:
But unemployment measured using the ILO definition is not always higher for men. Forty years ago it was higher for women. Successive recessions, especially in the 80s and 90s, have tended to hit male-dominated industries harder and the male unemployment rate has usually been higher since 1980.
The latest recession hit men and women more equally, but in different ways, when measured by the unemployment rate. For men it rose three and a half points in eighteen months, declined only slowly for two years and then more rapidly. For women, the unemployment rate rose more slowly and over a longer period – by about three points over more than three years, with a sustained decline thereafter. As a result, women’s unemployment rate has only just fallen below its pre-recession level, while men’s passed that mark in the summer of 2015. On the other hand, while the fall of the male unemployment rate has slowed women’s still seems to be coming down quite quickly.
In July to September there were 31.8m people in employment and the employment rate – 74.5 per cent for the fourth successive month – is the highest since records began in 1971.
A recent ONS chart puts this in context and shows the importance of a gendered understanding of these figures.
In the decade after the 1973 oil crisis typical male employment rates fell by more than ten percentage points. Since then the male employment rate has usually ranged from 75 to 80 per cent. There was a long period of stability in the 8 – 9 years before the global crisis, when it averaged 79 per cent.
Men’s employment rates were hit harder by the recession, but recovered relatively quickly and in recent months the male employment rate has reached 79.6 per cent, last surpassed in 2004.
Women’s employment rates have been rising throughout the period covered by the ONS chart. This is a trend that began some years earlier. Women’s employment rates did not rise as quickly as men’s rates fell in the 1970s. There was a period of particularly strong growth in the 1980s and, except during recessions, 12-month growth rates have been positive throughout. If we look at total employment, women’s rising employment rates softened the impact of the 80s, 90s and 2008-9 recessions.
But from a gender equality perspective the period since the end of the recession is not so rosy. The next chart shows the employment rate gap between men and women. This describes the percentage point difference in employment rates between men and women. I’m using a 12-month running average to reduce the noise in the figures:
In the 2000s, the gap shrank steadily and then rapidly during the recession. The increase in the gap of about 1 point corresponds with the recovery starting earlier for men. But since then, the gap has changed very little – a period of seven years with very little improvement in this measure of gender equallity.
But if the pause is a long one, I worry that we may be seeing an effect of a structural change that we haven’t yet identified.
Next in the series, we take a look at women in self-employment. After that we investigate some European comparisons, and then we look at the gender pay gap and part-time working.