Report summary: Women in the Labour Market, Two Decades of Change and Continuity

This IES report outlines the main trends and issues in women’s employment over the two decades from the mid 70s. 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 remained at a disadvantage in the labour market in the mid 1990s, highlighting key areas in which progress had been made, and evidence of continued discrimination on the basis of gender.

Economic activity

Over the 20 years from the 1970s the proportion of adult women who were economically active rose, while that for men declined (Figure 1). These trends were expected to continue into the next century and by 2006 the economic activity rate for women was projected to have reached 75 per cent.

Figure 1: Economic activity rates by gender: Great Britain 1971–2006 (per cent of working age in the civilian labour force — data beyond 1994 projected)

Diagram: Economic activity rates by gender, Great Britain 1971-2006

Source: Employment Gazette, April 1994

Working mothers

Rising economic activity among women was 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 was much less the case two decades later and women with dependent children were more likely to be working than not working. The most notable changes had occurred among women with children under five, 43 per cent of whom were working by the 1990s, 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

Diagram: 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 could 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 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 1971–1993

Diagram: Women employees by employment status, Great Britain 1971-1993

Source: Employment Gazette Historical Supplement, October 1994


Over the two decades from the 1970s the most striking change in women’s employment by industry was the decline in manufacturing and the rise of service sector employment. This had also been the case for men, but the trend among women was 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 were 40 and 27 per cent respectively (Figure 4).

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

Diagram: Change in employment by industry and gender, 1971-1993

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


Despite substantial changes over the 20 years, substantial differences remained in terms of the kinds of jobs women and men were working in by the 1990s. One half of employed women worked in three occupational groups (clerical and secretarial, personal and protective services, and sales). Together these occupations accounted for just 17 per cent of male employment. However, one of the most noticeable changes in women’s employment over the two decades had 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.


Some progress had 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 from that point to the mid 1990s progress had 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)

Diagram: Women's average gross hourly earnings as a per cent of men's, 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 had increased over the 20 years from the 1970s to the 1990s, with changes in some higher level jobs being particularly distinct (eg professional and managerial posts). This trend could not however be equated with an end to discrimination on the basis of gender. Evidence from a number of occupations showed that increasing equality of access to certain occupations did not mean that women and men progressed at the same rate within them. For example, by the 1990s over half of new entrants to the law were women, whereas they accounted for only seven per cent of High Court Judges. Even in occupations where women have a long history of access, they remained under-represented at the top: in teaching, women accounted 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 could 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 20 years from the 1970s had 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 was evident. Occupational segregation had proved remarkably resilient, which was one of the reasons why, on average, women’s earnings were still less than 80 per cent of those for men. In sum, the changed environment had by no means meant an end to substantial differences between women’s and men’s employment opportunities.