Since the end of 1992, British companies have created 97,000 new jobs for women, but shed 93,000 jobs held by men. By the end of the year the number of female employees may have overtaken the number of male employees for the first time in peacetime.
But as so often in economics, broad-brush statistics conceal a more complicated and less heartening reality. Women have certainly gained a lot of ground on men in the labour market in the past 50 years - and their advance may even be accelerating - but the ideal of equality is further away than it might appear.
Recent history should be put in context. It is not unusual for the employment of women to pick up more quickly than the employment of men as the economy drags itself out of recession. In the last economic cycle, employment for both men and women peaked in the second half of 1979, but while jobs were being created again for women by early 1983 it was more than three years later before male employment began to rise.
In large part the early pick-up in female job creation mirrors the fact that the number of part-timers tends to rise relatively sharply early in recoveries, while full-time employment lags behind. It is cheaper and easier to hire and fire part- time workers in response to changes in demand, while employers can also avoid paying National Insurance contributions for them.
This flexibility is especially attractive to employers when the revival of spending in the economy is still muted and uncertain. Women are more willing to take part-time work than men, especially in the sorts of jobs offered by service industries, which respond quickest to stirrings in demand.
But the rise in female employment relative to male employment cannot be dismissed as a cyclical oddity. Women did better in the upturn as well as the downturn, seeing their employment rise by 1.8 million by 1990 while only 225,000 jobs were created for men. Long- term trends are at work as well.
The norm entrenched by the European middle classes towards the end of the last century - in which society consists largely of stable married couples in which the husband is employed in full- time paid work while his wife provides unpaid domestic labour at home - is surely in long-term decline. Growing numbers of women are willing and able to participate in the labour market, while employers are increasingly willing and able to take them on.
This process should continue. A recent study for the Equal Opportunities Commission by Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research forecasts that female employment will rise by more than 600,000 in the 1990s while male employment will fall slightly *. Part-time and self-employment will continue to become more important while the number of full-time jobs shrinks. Employers are increasingly looking for flexible, white-collar, non-manual workers, while services should continue to grow in importance relative to manufacturing. Both trends are good news for women.
But it is at this point that the story becomes more complicated. One problem is that the part-time jobs available for women may be relatively badly paid and of low quality. The Chancellor of the Exchequer contested this point in his recent Mais lecture: 'The vast majority of part-time workers are working part-time not because they couldn't find a full-time job but because they want to. It fits in better with their own personal circumstances.' But for women these 'personal circumstances' are often the need to provide childcare and, increasingly, care for elderly relatives, which are as much obligations as free choices.
The experiences of women in the labour market have become more polarised. Women have won greater access in recent years to high-level professional and managerial positions. This is explained in part by their growing success in gaining educational qualifications and their willingness to come back to work relatively soon after having children. The length of this break can be crucial in determining how much job status and earning power a mother loses by the time she returns to work - paternity leave is still too rare to test for a similar effect.
Female employment in those low-quality service sector jobs already dominated by women - such as cleaning - has risen. But women have made few inroads into traditionally male low-grade jobs, particularly manual labour.
Managerial and professional opportunities for women should continue to become more numerous, although there is likely to be less expansion in the number of low-grade jobs. Secretarial and clerical jobs are likely to become more scarce with further advances in information technology. They may well become absorbed in a smaller number of more highly skilled office management posts with responsibility for IT.
This change should give women more opportunities to progress up management hierarchies from the bottom, rather than being trapped in narrowly defined 'secretarial' roles. But they will also face increasing competition from women brought straight into the middle ranks through graduate or management training schemes.
For all the evidence that there are more women coming into management hierarchies, this does not mean that more will automatically make it to the very highest executive levels in future.
A recent study by Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin for the National Institute for Economic and Social Research found that the so- called 'glass ceiling' remains tightly in place, with little sign that women are improving much on the 8 per cent of senior executive positions they currently hold **.
Gregg and Machin found that even when women are more numerous in lower management levels, they still find that younger men leapfrog them to maintain male domination at higher levels of the hierarchy. In many cases male bosses promote younger men because they believe that they will be keener to work longer hours in furtherance of their careers, and that they are less likely to interrupt their progress up the greasy pole to care for children.
Straightforward discrimination also plays its part: even women who make it to top executive positions tend to be paid between 6 and 8 per cent less than men doing the same sort of jobs in the same sort of companies. Women also tend to make inroads into high- level occupations precisely at the time when the pay and status of these occupations falls relative to other alternatives. The proportion of women in teaching and middle- grade Civil Service jobs rose in the Eighties as men found comparable jobs were becoming better paid.
The favourable picture of greater female colonisation of professional and managerial jobs is much less clear-cut than it appears. Women are advancing very strongly in professional jobs that demand individual skills - law, medicine and teaching, for example - but not in managerial jobs that involve direct control over resources and other people.
Where women do win managerial jobs in large organisations, it is often in areas such as personnel and sales, which call for particular types of expertise rather than general managerial skills and decision-making ability.
Women remain at a disadvantage to men in many parts of the workforce, notwithstanding their advance in numbers. Government policy should try to ensure that the skills and abilities of the whole workforce are used efficiently, but it can only help in limited ways.
Greater financial support for childcare would help, but long- term equality demands that men share the burden of domestic responsibilities more equitably. Perhaps more importantly, employers need to recognise this when they hire and promote. In these areas the Government can only exhort. The day when female employment overtakes male employment will certainly be a watershed in Britain, but it will not be the victory line.
* 'Labour Market Structures and Prospects for Women', Equal Opportunities Commission.
** 'Is the Glass Ceiling Cracking?: Gender Compensation Differentials and Access to Promotion among UK Executives', NIESR.
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