The Fawcett Society is an estimable campaigning organisation for the equality of women, with a long and distinguished history. But in women's rights, as in everything else, you have to pick your fights, and I am not sure that, in hiring lawyers to contest the supposed adverse effects of the Budget, it has picked either wisely or well.
The argument that women would suffer disproportionately if the Government chose to start its deficit-reduction with some radical pruning of the public sector was advanced even before the election, with the general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, in the vanguard. Once Labour had lost the election, the cry was taken up by Yvette Cooper, in her capacity as shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions and – to her credit – one of the few Opposition front-benchers actually doing some opposing in the interregnum before the party elects a new leader. She commissioned a gender audit of George Osborne's emergency Budget, which showed that almost three-quarters of the cuts would fall on women.
That audit is now being cited by the Fawcett Society to support its claim for a judicial review of the Budget. It argues that the Treasury failed to assess the likely impact on gender equality and is in breach of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. The society's chief executive, Ceri Goddard, said: "Some £5.8bn of the £8bn of cuts contained in the Budget will be taken from women, who will also be worst affected by the coming cuts to public services... If they believe women should bear a greater burden of cutting the deficit, they should come out and say so."
All of which sounds eminently reasonable, until you actually think about it – when objection after objection crowds in. Start with history. If you are looking for losers over the past half-century, it is not women, but men; men in their hundreds of thousands, even millions. Where were gender equality considerations when the coal mines and the dockyards closed, when the steelworks and car plants were abandoned? Certainly no one was invoking the Sex Discrimination Act.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the employment rate for women has gone from 56 per cent in 1971 to 69 per cent today, while the proportion of working-age men in employment has gone from 92 per cent to 75 per cent over the same period. Given the comparative proportions of men and women in employment, the discrepancy in raw numbers is even larger than it looks.
If we come right up to date, the ONS finds that the economic downturn, beginning in 2008, "impacted less on women in employment than men" – considerably less in fact: three times more men than women have lost their jobs since the recession hit. So women not only gained jobs as men lost them – but were more likely to hold on to them when the economy turned sour.
And there were reasons for this: heavy industry was in decline and shedding (mostly men's) jobs with closures and automation; the retail sector, health and services (more likely to be women's work) were all expanding. Add the fact that women's pay tends to be lower and more women than men are inclined either to seek out or to accept part-time employment, which makes for the sort of flexible workforce employers say they like, and the picture is clear. In terms of jobs, if not pay (which is another story), women have done far better than men. If women are going to suffer disproportionately from the cuts to come, this is in part at least because they have benefited disproportionately from the employment trends of recent years. It is also because so many more women than men now work directly or indirectly for the public sector. Depending how you count and who you consult, between 65 and 75 per cent of public-sector employees are now women. So if the public sector is to be slashed, then more women than men risk losing their jobs.
Now you could argue, and I would not demur, that the sharp gender imbalance between public and private sectors in Britain is unhealthy. But it reflects a cool assessment of self-interest. Women move into the public sector not just because this is where traditional "women's" jobs (the NHS, for example) are concentrated, and not just because this is where most of New Labour's jobs were created, but because they have come to see the public sector as more reliable, responsible and humane – in its observance of employment law, maternity leave, a narrower pay gap with men, and openness to flexible-working – than the private sector. That so many women see the State as a preferable employer to the private sector does not reflect well on Britain, and – whether or not public-sector jobs are to go – this is a disparity that needs to be addressed.
Rather than trying to overturn the Budget, the Fawcett Society, Yvette Cooper and the trade unions would be more productively occupied considering how to do this. They could also usefully examine the many ways in which past government policies have had the effect of encouraging women to become disproportionately dependent on the State – for employment and child-related benefits – while men have been disproportionately cast off. The huge shifts we have witnessed since the 1970s, with women moving into work, men moving out of work, and work concentrated in fewer households, reflect social progress, yes, but also the perverse impact of government policy.
It must also be recognised that campaigners like to look on the dark side. For all the shroud-waving about hypothetical 40 per cent cuts, it is not inevitable that women will be thrown out of their jobs en masse or deprived of needed benefits. With far more women than men in so-called frontline – and low-paid – jobs, they may be more likely to remain employed than the higher-paid men who dominate management. More part-time and flexible working could also soften whatever public-sector blows are to come.
Lobbying has its place, and equality for women is far from being achieved. But ahistorical and distorted special pleading for party political advantage only invites a male backlash and risks discrediting the cause.