Chasing the lady through employment statistics

A spate of press reports this month warned of dire consequences for women if public spending cuts lead to public sector job losses. 

'Women in front line of cuts if councils slash spending', reported The Guardian on 23 March. This followed an article in the same paper on 13 March by Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, headlined "Public sector job cuts hit women first". And before that, on 10 March, Channel 4 online news had reported '"Women hardest hit by spending cuts".  This piece quoted Mr Barber as saying that women would have to pay for cuts in public spending with their jobs and pensions.
But are these well-founded predictions, or just speculation? The answer, it seems, is a bit of both. 
An element of guesswork is unavoidable, and this is not just because the government has been coy about where cuts will fall. It turns out that there is a surprising lack of government public sector employment statistics by gender. Accurate estimates of the number of women in this workforce are tricky.
The source of the headlines was a report produced by the TUC for the 2010 TUC Women's Conference, 'Women and recession: one year on', published on 8 March. In fact the report makes clear from the start that, so far, men have been hit hardest by the recession: "More men than women have lost their jobs in the recession, and the rate of male unemployment has increased faster than the female rate." [Introduction, para 1.2]
It argues, however, that women have been protected because more of them work in the public sector which has been spared large scale redundancies – again, so far. In para 1.13, p8, figures are provided:
"... in September 2009 there were 5,748,000 women working in the areas of education, health and public admin compared to 2,488,000 men. Data from the Annual Business Inquiry suggests that just under 40 per cent of women's jobs nationally are in the public sector, compared to around 15 per cent of positions held by men."
As it turns out, "suggests" is the key word here. A lengthy footnote explains: "The Annual Business Inquiry (ABI) is an employer survey conducted in December of each year...The ABI records the total number of jobs held by employees (a measure which excludes self-employed, government-supported trainees and HM Forces). As the ABI only provides estimates of jobs by industry rather than whether individuals are employed in the public or private sectors some private sector workers who are contracted to provide service to the public sector are included in the analysis (this includes GPs, university and further education staff, and agency and contracted workers, as well as privately provided education, health and welfare services)."
The footnote continues: "We do not consider this a problem for this analysis, as the jobs of both directly employed and contracted workers would be at risk from job cuts. ONS do produce data on public sector employment which includes directly employed public sector employees, but it is not disaggregated by gender."
The latest ONS public sector employment figures, published on 17 March, confirm that public sector employment increased in 2009, up 7,000 in the last quarter to 6.098 million, 46,000 more than the last quarter of 2008. By contrast, employment in the private sector fell by 61,000 in the last quarter of 2009. See "Public Sector Employment Q4 2009".
This does include a gender breakdown for the civil service which suggests that women account for about 53 per cent of the 532,930 workforce. Significantly more women than men work part-time (approximately 33 per cent to 6.6 per cent - see Table 7, p21). But as the civil service is less than a tenth of the total for public sector employment, extrapolation is problematic.
Figures from the Local Government Association suggest that women account for 75 per cent of the 2.2m local government workforce.
So what should we make of the warnings for women employed in the public sector?
Alan Manning, Professor of Economics at the LSE, and an expert in labour markets, is cautious: "It depends where cuts are going to fall" he said. "It could be worse for young workers. The first thing employers do is stop hiring, not firing. The gender divide is not the main focus."