Unemployment: the pain is shared

Today’s unemployment figures make gloomy reading, with total unemployment up to 2.64 million, a 17-year high.

But the figures do not substantiate one of the claims most commonly made, which is that cuts in public spending will disproportionately hurt women. Yvette Cooper MP, Shadow Minister for Women, for example, claimed in August that the cuts “were hurting women the hardest”. She said: “Women are being disproportionately hit by public sector job losses and rising childcare costs.”

In contrast, what the figures actually show is that the misery is being fairly equally shared between the sexes, at least as far as jobs are concerned.

To take employment first, the number of jobs filled by men fell in the past year (August to October 2011 compared to the same period in 2010) by 47,000, a fall of 0.4 per cent. By contrast, the number filled by women rose by 33,000, or 0.2 per cent.

Women are more likely to work part-time, so one would expect to see them suffering disproportionately in this sector of the job market, but surprisingly the opposite is the case. The total number of part-time jobs filled by men fell by 3.7 per cent over the year, while the number filled by women fell much less, by only 0.9 per cent.

Part-time work includes both employment and self-employment. If we exclude the self-employed, the trends are similar. Men employed part-time occupied 4.9 per cent fewer jobs in 2011 than in 2010, while women filled 2.0 per cent fewer. So the loss of part-time jobs has been greater in men than in women, something that is both unexpected and difficult to explain.

One possible explanation is that women who work part-time are actually more highly-valued by employers than are part-time men. They earn more – a median of £157.90 a week compared to £142.60 for men – part-time work being the only sector of the job market in which they hold such an advantage. Perhaps employers are retaining the employees they value more, in this case women.  

Looking at unemployment, the rising trend over the year has been much the same for both sexes. Until the most recent quarter, male unemployment was rising fractionally faster than female. If the July-September quarters of 2010 and 2011 are compared, for example, male unemployment rose at an annual rate of 7.1 per cent while female unemployment rose by 7.0 per cent.

The latest figures, out today, show that year-on-year growth has slowed, and that this change is more marked for men than women. Between August and October 2010 and the same period this year, male unemployment rose by 5.2 per cent while female unemployment rose by 6.0 per cent.

John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is quoted in the Financial Times today as saying that the impact of austerity measures will be more “gender-balanced” than many expected.

He told the FT: “It’s far too soon to conclude what will happen to the relative fortunes of men and women in thge jobs market in the coming months. But what we do know is that the relative position of women has not so far worsened as much as commonly perceived or was widely anticipated.”

The TUC’s claim that job losses will rise faster among women than men as the public sector cuts bite may yet prove true. But there is little evidence so far to substantiate it.