Women swelling the ranks of the jobless

Female unemployment hits 1.1 million – the worst in 23 years

Women are the hidden victims of Britain's flatlining economy, losing their jobs at a far faster rate than men, official figures revealed yesterday.

The latest jobless statistics showed that women were being disproportionately affected by the remorseless rise in unemployment, which stands at a 16-year record of 2.67 million. More than 1.1 million women were out of work in December – a leap of 91,000 in a year and the highest total for 23 years.

Women have borne the brunt of the economic slowdown since the summer, representing two-thirds of the rise in unemployment in the final months of 2011. They are losing their jobs in large numbers as the spending squeeze leads to tens of thousands of redundancies, and worse is yet to come. Women represent 80 per cent of the 710,000 public sector workers set to be made redundant over the next five years.

In local government, where one in 10 jobs is forecast to go, about 75 per cent of the workforce is female. Some women are switching from full-time work to part-time posts in an effort to stay in the employment market, while others are giving up their jobs because of the soaring cost of childcare.

The heavy rate of redundancies will be embarrassing to Downing Street, which is acutely sensitive to charges that its austerity measures are alienating female voters. A leaked No 10 document last year warned the Government was "seen as having hit women, or their interests, disproportionately" and David Cameron has urged advisers to pursue female-friendly policies.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, accused Mr Cameron of having a "blind spot" on women's issues. "As long as the Government is pushing women out of work, weakening action on the gender pay gap, reducing childcare and threatening to undermine maternity rights, they are making it harder, not easier, for women to work or to get promoted throughout their lives," she told The Independent. "The Prime Minister needs to wake up to the real impact of his policies on women up and down the country and think again."

Anna Bird, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for female equality, said: "These new figures must act as a wake-up call to Government – we are in a time of crisis. Cuts are threatening women's equality, as jobs dry up, benefits are slashed and vital public services disappear."

Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank, said: "The public sector is the only broad sector of the economy in which women are over-represented. Women are being hit hardest as public-sector jobs cuts begin to come through. Retail and the public sector offer the kind of flexible, part-time jobs that women often prefer because they can balance their work with family commitments."

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed the female jobless rate rose by 33,000 in the three months to the end of December. By contrast, the male jobless figure increased by just 16,000 over the period. Many women have also been out of work for a lengthy period, with 340,000 now unemployed for more than a year.

Though women have disproportionately been victims of public and private-sector redundancies, in December the IPPR also produced a report arguing that the high cost of childcare was preventing women from returning to the workplace. The official figures also demonstrated that women are increasingly taking up part-time work because of a lack of alternatives. There were 5.86 million women employed in this way in the three months to December, compared with 2.01 million men.

The ONS figures showed the total national unemployment rate rising to 8.4 per cent, the highest level in 16 years, with 2.67 million people out of work. The rate of youth unemployment also hit a new high over the period.

The proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds looking for work, including those fully unemployed, hit 22.2 per cent – about 1.04 million. The numbers claiming Jobseeker's Allowance in January increased by 6,900 to 1.6 million.

Case study: 'Things are tight. I'm not sure how we'll manage'

Theodora Munroe, 37, a legal secretary from North London, said:

"I was told I would be made redundant at the end of January. As of next week, I'll be another person unemployed.

"Everybody is feeling the squeeze, and I can't blame my employer. It's admin and secretary jobs that are going first – and most of those are filled by women, so in my profession women are feeling the brunt at the moment.

"Things are going to get harder until I can find more work. Things are already tight. There's the mortgage and the bill repayments. I'm not quite sure how my husband and I will manage with just his salary coming in. We'll have to make sacrifices.

"I'm already on the look out for a new job but I'm aware that it's going to be harder now than it has ever been. I am qualified and experienced, but there are so many people in the job market taking jobs they are overqualified for: the effects of that will be felt further down the ladder by people who are less experienced or without qualifications. There won't be any jobs left for them.

"The government needs to do more to encourage growth and help smaller firms like the one where I have just lost my job. The big players are doing fine, but the others are suffering."

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