The way the government measures unemployment understates the scale of the problem for women
Today the TUC has published new analysis of Labour Force Survey data, which shows that government figures on unemployment understate the number of women who are seeking work.
The TUC points out that the headline unemployment count used by the government only counts people who have very recently applied for a new job and are immediately available to start work.
It misses out others who want work, but who have not recently applied for a job or who would not be able to start immediately due to their circumstances.
So while the headline unemployment figure has fallen by more than 800,000 over the last three years, the number of economically inactive people who want work has hardly changed, dropping only from 2,371,000 to 2,298,000.
And in this period, the number of economically inactive women seeking work has actually increased slightly, from 1,363,000 to 1,379,000.
The method of measurement is crucial for understanding the differences between male and female unemployment. Although there is a higher unemployment rate for men (990,000 compared to 815,000 for women), there are 1,379,000 economically inactive women seeking work, compared to just 920,000 men.
That’s nearly half a million more women than men who are looking for work.
So why does the measurement make so much difference to the count? There are a few possible reasons.
First, there is the fact that women are much more likely to have sole caring responsibilities than men. The last census showed that women account for 92 per cent of single parents with dependent children. This means that women may not be able to start work straight away, ie. before they have made childcare provisions.
Given the cost of childcare, it is also likely that women will not apply for every job they see – only ones whose salary outweighs the cost of childcare, in order to make it pay to work. For this reason, women who have not ‘very recently applied for a new job’ will be overlooked in the headline count, despite the fact that they do want work.
Secondly, even women who are in a couple are much more likely to assume childcare responsibilities – only around one in five women say they are the main earner in their relationship.
If one partner is earning enough for a family to survive there is less incentive to look for jobs, which is time-consuming and, if there are young children to look after, sometimes simply not possible. Again, the benefits of having a job must be weighed against the cost of childcare – and now against potential cuts to tax credits.
In short, the bar is higher for the kind of jobs it is worth women taking. There is a cohort of women who would ideally like a job, but who are coasting, supporting their husbands, as this is currently the more economically viable choice.
Third, women are more likely to be in insecure, low-paid work than men, meaning there is potentially more fluctuation in their employment status. Women also make up around two-thirds of the public sector workforce, an area which has been badly hit by Conservative cuts. This means that in the current climate women may struggle to find jobs to apply for that match their skill sets and experience.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“Six years on from the recession, the culture of low expectations on jobs and pay is well past its sell-by date. Reducing the claimant count alone is not good enough if there are still over two million people who want a job but don’t have one.
“The government should be especially concerned about the lack of progress for women with caring responsibilities who want to work. There are nearly half a million more women looking for work than men, and the gap is not closing.
“Given the number of women who work in public services, there’s a big danger that cuts due to be announced in November will mean major job losses, along with a reduction in family friendly job vacancies and a further rise in the number of women seeking work.”
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward.
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