Women Win a Pyrrhic Victory at Work

By Wallace, Paul | The Independent (London, England), May 7, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Women Win a Pyrrhic Victory at Work


Wallace, Paul, The Independent (London, England)


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.

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