Women win a pyrrhic victory at work

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The Independent Online
DAD'S ARMY may have won the war, but women are winning the peace on the jobs front. Fifty years ago, it was a man's world in the workplace. This year or next, there are likely to be more women employed than men, a prospect that has raised fears about the redundant rogue male. But is this apparent victory in the economic war of the sexes proving a pyrrhic one?

It was not just troops who were demob happy in 1945. Within a matter of months, two million women left the workforce. Britain was back to a world of jobs for the boys. For every woman at work, there were two men, a ratio that remained largely unchanged for another 20 years. The post- war objective of full employment was seen as full-time jobs for men.

But in the past 15 years, there has been another massive demobilisation from the workforce. Except this time, the economic drop-outs are more than a million men. Combine this with an increase of a million in the number of men who are still looking for jobs but cannot find them and the result is one of the highest rates of male non-employment in the western world.

Meanwhile, starting in the mid-1960s and gathering momentum in the last 15 years, women have grabbed more and more of the jobs. Result: there are now only a quarter million more male than female employees. When Mrs Thatcher became the first woman prime minister, the gap stood at 4 million.

No wonder there are many to be found muttering over a pint that women are stealing men's jobs. With pay rates still well behind those of men - weekly take-home earnings for full-time women workers are 70 per cent of male earnings - women have certainly formed a reserve army offering cheap labour for employers. They are the crack troops of the much vaunted "flexible workforce" of the 1990s.

But there is a lot more to the female takeover of the workplace than that. What has happened is that unskilled men in particular have found themselves wrong-footed by the move to a post-industrial economy.

The staffing of Sheffield's Meadowhall retail centre - which has over half a million shoppers a week - tells its own story. The centre, which opened in 1990, was built on the site of a former steel mill, just the sort of heavy industry that once used to be such a heavy employer of men. But 78 per cent of the employees at Meadowhall are women.

The point is that service-sector employment tends to favour women just as industrial employment tends to favour men. Britain is not alone in this. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has established that typical occupations such as healthcare, catering, clerical administration, and work in hotels are principally staffed by women in the advanced countries it monitors.

Professor Richard Freeman, the Harvard labour economist, found that services had as high a proportion of women in the United States at the beginning of the century. What has changed is that services have grown to dominate modern economies such as those of the US and UK.

At present, manufacturing is showing an unusual revival and factory jobs are growing for the first time in the 1990s. But because technology can displace jobs so much more easily in factories than in hospitals and schools, future jobs are almost certain to be concentrated in services.

Because this shift from an industrial economy is common to advanced countries, we are not alone in the extent to which women now work. Britain has a relatively high proportion of women in the workforce, but the US and Scandinavian countries such as Sweden score even higher on that count.

Where Britain does stand out is in combining this extent of female participation in work with a particularly low percentage of those whose jobs are full- time. Nearly half female jobs are part-time, a condition that suits women with children.

And not just that: women are much more likely to drift in and out of work than used to be the case. This is one of the key discoveries about employment that has emerged from the British Household Panel Survey, which tracks the same sample of households over time. It reported recently that women had become much more likely to move in and out of employment and between different forms of jobs.

This new pattern of "discontinuous work", together with the prevalence of part-time jobs compounds the effect of lower pay for the same work. An OECD survey of 18 countries published last month put Britain near the bottom of the league of women's earnings as a proportion of men's. It revealed that British women earn on average just under half what men earn. Only Swiss women did worse. Cross the Channel and it is a different story: in France, women earn 75 per cent of what men do.

Women may be winning in the sheer number of jobs: in virtually every other respect, they are locked in the trenches. Career women face excruciating dilemmas in reconciling children with the demands of full-time work. Those who cannot afford child care lose out as they move into ill-paid, part- time work. Heather Joshi, an economist, has estimated that a British mother with two children loses over half her potential lifetime earnings compared with a woman who stays childless.

But if women's victory is more apparent than real, men's defeat is as real as it is apparent - certainly for those who have quit the battlefield. The only silver lining has been an increase in the number of the self- employed, but for many that has meant swapping regular for insecure earnings.

The overall effect has been to widen family inequality, particularly between "work-rich" two-earner and "work-poor" no-earner households, caught in the benefits trap. Women with partners in work do not face the loss of benefits incurred by members of households on income support. According to research by Stephen Machin and Jane Waldfogel at the London School of Economics, the decline of the male breadwinner is "the most important factor driving the increased inequality of family incomes between the late 1970s and early 1990s".

This has prompted remonstrations from both sides of the political spectrum. Leading the charge from the right is Patricia Morgan, at the Institute of Economic Affairs. She argues that families are reaping the bitter fruits of a misconceived feminism, and that the advent of women into the workforce on so large a scale has destroyed "the family wage".

She says the Government has added insult to injury with changes in taxation that have tilted the balance away from one-earner families to individuals without children. The reduction this tax year to 15 per cent in the tax relief from the married couple's allowance - frozen at £1,720 since 1990 - is simply the latest blow. There must be a restoration, she argues, of tax allowances that can sustain the family on one income.

From the left, the Social Justice Commission - set up by the late Labour leader John Smith - fretted about the growing inequality between households that has emerged from the new patterns of employment. It called for child- care assistance to be made available to low-income parents who find jobs.

Neither set of proposals really comes close to tackling the scale of the problem. While it is clear that the clock cannot be turned back - the essential logic of Ms Morgan's position - there is some truth in her view that women have entered the workforce on employers' terms.

What is needed now is a programme of action that makes the term "flexible workforce" less of a sham as far as standard of living is concerned. There is fertile ground here for politicians who wish to tackle an issue that goes to the heart of many people's lives.