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Comment: New figures overlook key issues

Jobs for women, but Britain becoming part-time workforce

women in workNo wonder finance secretary John Swinney was beaming when he unveiled figures on women in the workplace to the Scottish parliament today. The 46,000 extra females in jobs, taking the total to a record 1.3 million, was proof that government policy on gender equality was working, he said.

However, this is only part of the story about employment trends that is not so reassuring. What he didn’t tell us was that it is a further step towards creating a part-time and lower paid workforce.

Only one in 40 jobs created across the UK since the recession has been full-time and with more women than men seeking or preferring part-time work they have found it easier to take up the jobs on offer. Furthermore, and despite the pay gap falling to a 17-year low, women are still cheaper to hire.

Research for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows that 40% of women compared to 13% of men work fewer than 30 hours a week. Half of women were more likely to take up part-time working when it was offered, compared to a quarter (27%) of men.

The rise in female employment will be welcomed all round, not least by women themselves. But their greater flexibility and lower rates of pay – and fewer benefits as a result – means that in many cases they are also a better option for employers, though not necessarily for all the right reasons.

The main reason for women preferring to work fewer hours will not come as a surprise: childcare. Even the demands for greater “work-life balance” seem to be having only a marginal impact on changing childcare habits.

Certainly there has been an increase in the number of men wanting to take time off to care for their children, encouraged by greater paternal rights. It may even have contributed to the rise in the number of women entering the workforce.

However, the effect of this growth in paternity leave is minimal. In a paper published last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated: “The evidence about women and men’s participation in the labour market and the reality of childcare arrangements show that progress towards a more equal division of caring responsibilities between women and men is still very slow.”

The figures above are for the UK and date back to 2011, but the Scottish figures won’t be much different and long term trends show that the patterns are largely consistent.

The Equality Commission said: “Gendered patterns in employment rates are broadly the same across England, Scotland and Wales.  The data for Britain shows that women are significantly more likely to be in part-time employment than men and this pattern has remained relatively unchanged over the past ten years.”

The conclusion is easy to reach: as more women join the labour market, the more the labour market becomes part-time and lower paid, and the more pressure it puts on household budgets.

What John Swinney and his government ought to be doing now – apart from encouraging more full-time work – is campaigning for equal pay and ensuring women do not suffer discrimination in terms of the benefits that are often denied to the part-time worker.




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