Political “common-sense” says that we need swingeing public sector cuts. But what we are not told by their advocates is that they would quickly lead to significant job losses for women. Up to now this recession has hit men’s jobs harder than women’s, although the gender difference in unemployment increases has been less than in the 1980s or 1990s downturns.
But this is not because women have intrinsically higher job security. In many sectors, such as manufacturing, finance and hotels and restaurants, men and women have been equally likely to lose their jobs. The reason is that women are more likely to work in the public sector (as TUC analysis shows), and so far there have been fewer job losses in the public sector than the private. Indeed women make up the majority of the public sector workforce, with around four in ten working women having public sector jobs.
Widespread public sector job losses would have a disproportionate affect on female employees and their families. The effects would be worse in the regions that already have high male unemployment rates; the three regions where over 10 per cent of working age men are out of work – North East England, Yorkshire and the Humber and the West Midlands - are also all areas where over 40 per cent of female employees work in public sector jobs.
Pensioner poverty is far more prevalent among women than men, with women’s average income in retirement just 62 per cent the level that the average retired man will have to live on. However public sector pensions improve women’s overall level of pension provision. Because more women than men work in the public sector they have nearly two-thirds of public sector defined benefit schemes – not all of which are final salary. Large-scale redundancies, as well as attempts to level down public sector pensions, would increase the number of women facing poverty in retirement.
While no one can oppose improving public sector efficiency, public sector job cuts are more likely to be unplanned job reductions that leave the same amount of work to be done by fewer people, leading to stress and pressures to do unpaid overtime. As women are much more likely to be carers – with many facing a double burden of care, housework and paid employment – they have much less scope to absorb these extra demands and are more likely to pay the price as services are reduced.
Thanks to bold action by government and the Bank of England, both women and men have seen their employment rates fall by far less than in previous downturns, and as yet levels of inactivity have hardly risen (with what rises there have been mainly due to an increase in the numbers of students).
But real challenges also remain - involuntary part-time work is an increasing problem for women and men.
We can be pretty sure that the recession will not lead to positive changes in our working culture that will give employees more choice of working hours through more flexible working schemes and the creation of high quality part-time vacancies. It is more likely that a better than expected headline rate of unemployment hides continuing underemployment and consequent low wages.
The alternative would be positive action to create a fairer post-recession labour market. But sweeping cuts with consequent rising female unemployment rates, higher pensioner poverty, and even more pressure on women trying to juggle work with other responsibilities are no place to start.