Jobs for the girls? Can female employment and unemployment both be at historic highs?

23 November 2012

Last week, Maria Miller, who besides being the Culture Secretary is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, praised encouraging figures for women in the jobs market. According to her:

"There are more women in work than ever before."

This is a particularly striking claim when you consider that earlier this year, certain media outlets were warning that female unemployment was at its highest level since the 1980s:

UK Unemployment: Women Out Of Work At Highest Level For 25 Years

So can both of these claims really be true?

In short yes. Both employment and unemployment levels are measured in the Labour Force Survey, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). As you can see from the gender crossbreaks, women's employment and unemployment are both at historically high levels.

In part, this can be explained by the fact that there are simply more women in the UK. 20 years ago there were 18.3 million women of working age, whereas today there are 20.2 million.

However this doesn't entirely cover it. If we look at the female employment and unemployment rates - the proportion of working age women in or looking for jobs - then we can see that while they aren't currently at record highs, both are above the levels seen in previous years.

To explain this, we need to look at what both metrics are actually measuring.

The UK uses the International Labor Organization's definition of unemployment, which is explained in more detail here.

Put simply, to be classed as unemployed, it is not enough to simply be out of work - you must also be actively looking for work. Those that aren't looking for work are classed as 'economically inactive' and don't feature in either employment or unemployment figures.

Recent years have seen an increase in women classed as economically active, with fewer choosing to stay at home to the exclusion of a career. In 1992 around a third of working age women were classed as economically inactive, compared to around 28.6% now.

A greater number of women in the economically active pot means that the numbers falling into both the employed and unemployed categories can grow without it being paradoxical.

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