Women in the Labour Market
Two Decades of Change and Continuity

Court G
Report 294, Institute for Employment Studies, October 1995

This IES report outlines the main trends and issues in women’s employment over two decades. It provides information on economic activity, full-time and part-time work, industrial and occupational change, pay and women’s educational attainment. A discussion follows on the extent to which women remain at a disadvantage in the labour market, which highlights key areas in which progress has been made, and evidence of continued discrimination on the basis of gender.

Economic activity

Over the past 20 years the proportion of adult women who are economically active has risen, while that for men has declined (Figure 1). These trends are expected to continue into the next century and by 2006 the economic activity rate for women is projected to have reached 75 per cent.

Figure 1: Economic activity rates by gender: Great Britain 19712006 (per cent of working age in the civilian labour force data beyond 1994 projected)


Figure 1: Economic activity rates by gender: Great Britain 1971-2006

Source: Employment Gazette, April 1994

Working mothers

Rising economic activity among women has been driven by a transformation in the working patterns of women with children. In the early 1970s there was a very marked difference between women with children and other women in terms of their labour market behaviour. This is much less the case now and women with dependent children are more likely to be working than not working. The most notable changes have occurred among women with children under five, 43 per cent of whom now work, compared with only a quarter in 1973 (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Employment rate of women by whether they have children and age of youngest child


Figure 2: Employment rate of women by whether they have children and age of youngest child

Source: GHS 1992, Table 7.8

Employment patterns

Much of the increase in the number of women in paid work can be accounted for by the rise of part-time work (between 1971 and 1993, 93 per cent of the total increase in women’s employment was in part-time work). This has resulted in a significant rise in the proportion of women working part time from one third in 1971 to 46 per cent in 1993 (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Women employees by employment status: Great Britain 19711993


Figure 3: Women employees by employment status: Great Britain 1971-1993

Source: Employment Gazette Historical Supplement, October 1994

Industry

Over the past two decades, the most striking change in women’s employment by industry has been the decline in manufacturing and the rise of service sector employment. This has also been the case for men, but the trend among women has been slightly more marked.

In 1971, manufacturing accounted for 29 per cent of women employees, a figure which had fallen to 12 per cent by 1993. Among men the equivalent figures are 40 and 27 per cent respectively (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Change in employment by industry and gender: 1971-1993 (per cent)


Figure 4: Change in employment by industry and gender: 1971-1993

Source: derived from Lindley and Wilson, 1994, Table 2.4

Occupation

Despite substantial changes over the past 20 years, substantial differences remain in terms of the kinds of jobs women and men do. One half of employed women work in three occupational groups (clerical and secretarial, personal and protective services, and sales). Together these occupations account for just 17 per cent of male employment. Over the past 20 years however, one of the most noticeable changes in women’s employment has been their entry into professional and managerial employment. In 1971 these occupations accounted for just 12 per cent of women, a figure which had risen to 20 per cent by 1993.

Pay

Some progress has been made in terms of women’s pay relative to that of men. In 1970 (ie prior to the Sex Discrimination Act [SDA] women’s earnings were on average 63 per cent that of men. By 1994, this proportion had risen to almost 80 per cent (Figure 5). Much of this change occurred, however, in the years after the implementation of the SDA in the mid 1970s, and since then progress has been relatively limited.

Figure 5: Women’s average gross hourly earnings as a per cent of men’s, selected years 1970-1994 (excluding overtime, full-time employees on adult rates)


Figure 5: Women’s average gross hourly earnings as a per cent of men’s, selected years 1970-1994

Source: Equal Opportunities Commission 1988, Table 4.1; New Earnings Survey 1989, 1991, 1993, 1994

An end to discrimination?

Women’s representation in a range of occupations has increased over the past 20 years, with changes in some higher level jobs being particularly distinct (eg professional and managerial posts). This trend cannot however be equated with an end to discrimination on the basis of gender. Evidence from a number of occupations shows that increasing equality of access to certain occupations does not mean that women and men progress at the same rate within them. For example, over half of new entrants to the law are women, whereas they account for only seven per cent of High Court Judges. Even in occupations where women have a long history of access, they remain under-represented at the top: in teaching, women account for three quarters of full-time teachers but just 21 per cent of secondary school head teachers.

The main barriers to women’s equal participation in the labour market can be divided into two broad categories:

  • practical barriers, such as access to affordable and flexible childcare and flexible working arrangements

  • cultural barriers, including the persistence of informal networks from which women are excluded, unease about women in positions of authority, and the continuation of working cultures in which women are not encouraged or expected to succeed.

In conclusion, the last 20 years have been a period of particularly rapid change for women, both in terms of their level of participation in paid work and the quality of the labour market options available to them. In other respects, however, a good deal of continuity is evident. Occupational segregation has proved remarkably resilient, which is one of the reasons why, on average, women’s earnings are still less than 80 per cent of those for men. In sum, the changed environment has by no means meant an end to substantial differences between women’s and men’s employment opportunities.

Women in the Labour Market: Two Decades of Change and Continuity, Court G. Report 294, Institute for Employment Studies, 1995.
ISBN: 978-1-85184-221-6. PDF Download only: £8.00

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