Mary Dejevsky: Let's not fight this gender war

Women move into the public sector not just because this is where 'women's' jobs are concentrated, but because they see it as more reliable, responsible and humane

Share
Related Topics

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.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Neo-Nazis march in London  

I'm taking my Jewish kids to a vile neo-Nazi rally in London this weekend because I want them to learn about free speech

Richard Ferrer
A police officer carries a casualty to safety  

Tunisia attack proves that we cannot stop terrorists carrying out operations against Britons in Muslim countries

Robert Verkaik
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map