last week I went to a really great debate hosted by Compass and Fawcett on women and the recession. Harriet Harman may not have won many votes in her response to the expenses fiasco, but she packed a real punch at this event: funny, passionate, willing to stick her neck out and say what she believed in. After attending far too many events recently where ministers sound more like droning wonks, this was a welcome relief.
There has been quite a lot of debate about whether women are more affected by men than the recession. I don’t know how productive these debates are, but what’s clear is that we need to delve behind the stats to understand what’s really going on. Take for example the claimant count (ie the number of people registering for Jobseekers’ Allowance): on this basis, it looks like men are hit harder by what’s happening. However, if you look at levels of economic participation you get a very different story: in some parts of the country, women’s employment levels are falling two, even three, times faster than men’s. So women are losing their jobs at worrying rates (hardly surprising given they work in sectors that are far more vulnerable to the recession and in firms that are less unionised), but not then registering as unemployed.
Recent research by Mori (you can download here) shows that beyond job losses, women are shouldering a disproportionate burden in terms of stress and anxiety, too. Not only are they worrying about their own jobs, but also their partners’ jobs, their children’s future, their parents care needs, and the pressures on household budgets as the cost of fuel and food rises. What I find fascinating is that a few years ago, when asked what they were most concerned about, men would say ‘the economy’ and women would say ‘education’ or ‘health’. There’s no difference now: everyone ranks the economy first. But women worry about it in terms of family life as well as in terms of employment and money per se. As we found in doing the work for The Other Glass Ceiling, women continue to act as the family managers (even if couples say that they share roles more equally now) and so it falls to them to adapt and cope in the light of a loss or drop in wages. Managing poverty is difficult, time consuming, and often secretive work.
The event was a bit short on solutions to these issues – other than emphasising the importance of targeting information drives at women, and raising benefits – but it was a timely reminder that one of the ways in which the recession is different to previous downturns is that women’s work matters so much more now than it has done in the past. It matters to women themselves; it matters to family budgets; and it matters in every sector of the economy. We have to find ways of valuing it – which is why I applaud Harriet Harman’s success in getting the Equality Bill to where it is now, with its determination to root out pay discrimination and improve women’s representation in all walks of life.