Women in employment: the statistics that matter

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There are 14 million women in work, the highest number since the Office of National Statistics’ records began and a rapid increase from record-breaking unemployment two years ago. The number of women in full-time employment has increased to just over eight million. On paper, things appear well. However, the government’s line that, therefore, ‘more people have the security of a regular wage and can plan for their future’ fails to correspond with a reality which, for many women, means punishing hours, lower wages than men for the same roles and discrimination in the workplace. The huge fluctuations in the number of women in work shows that employment based on the whims of the market cannot be secure.

The much-publicised statistics have been used by the mainstream political parties and their apologists to spin an argument about the benefits of hard work. A Westminster discussion, ‘Women’s Contribution to the Economy’, held on International Women’s Day (8 March), ended in claims that, with enough individual ambition, anything is possible under capitalism irrespective of circumstance. If only women work a little harder, went the argument, equality is possible, as well as the recovery of the economy to boot.

Instead, median wages for women fell last year, from £413 a week to £411. Rising prices mean a very real reduction in how far wages will stretch to cover necessities. In FRFI’s political campaigning on the streets we regularly meet working women struggling to make ends meet. For example, Clarissa, a cleaner living in Brixton with two children, said: ‘£10 by itself means nothing – it only matters what I can get in my basket and how much is left over, and that’s less and less each time.’ Cuts continue to bite, such as the reductions in council tax support. Childcare costs remain the highest in the world. The median wage figure, significant in itself, does not detail the massive inequality within women’s wages. One in four working women earns less than the living wage and one in five families live in poverty. Last year, 4.3 million families in work relied on benefits to supplement meagre wages in order to afford basic necessities. Worsening conditions for working-class women, bearing the brunt of austerity and cuts, are part of the broader and ever-increasing gap between the richest and poorest in society.

Inequality is perpetuated by racism and sexism which pervade the structures and attitudes of society. Overall, the pay gap between men and women has risen in the past year to 10%, meaning Britain is one of the most unequal countries in the EU. The pay gap for women and men aged between 50 and 59 stands at a shocking 18%. The employment figures also mask inequalities between black and Asian women, and white women. The unemployment rate for black women has remained consistently double that of white women, and 20.5% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are unemployed compared with 6.8% of white women. Women have reported changing their name and avoiding traditional clothing in interviews to try to gain employment.

Government celebrations of employment statistics gloss over the number of women forced to register as self-employed because of job losses and zero-hour contracts. They fail to mention that in 2012, self-employed women earned 40% less than self-employed men, taking home an average of just £9,800 a year. Scarlet Harris from the Women’s Budget Group argues: ‘Clerical, cleaning and caring work, which is predominantly carried out by women, has experienced some of the fastest growth in self-employment in recent years. These women, who already suffer poverty rates of pay, are now having to contend with the poor working conditions and complete lack of job security that self-employment brings.’ In addition, employed women are facing less security and increasingly difficult working conditions. Half of all pregnant women face discrimination at work, and more than 30,000 women each year lose their jobs during pregnancy. A 2013 study of 1,000 women found that 60% had to fend off a colleague after receiving unwanted attention at work, including physical harassment.

Of course, at the same time as employment figures are heralded, unemployment is criminalised. Last year, Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, over a third of whom are women, faced the highest number of sanctions since the introduction of the benefit. 867,690 were punished, plus 22,840 of Employment Support Allowance claimants from the work-related activity group.

Rising inequality cuts through the lie of a simple upward trend of employment, security and increasing equality for women. A radical break is needed from arguments that set capitalist understandings of work – individualistic, punishing, expected yet impossible for many – as the limit of what is possible for women in society.

Rachel Francis      

Statistics from: Office of National Statistics, theyworkforyou.com, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Oxfam, Women’s Budget Group, Maternity Action, Slater and Gordon, Department of Work and Pensions.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014