Glass ceiling remains in place despite progress

Fri, Jun 29, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The economic downturn has narrowed long-standing gaps between men and women in areas such as employment and education – but some stubborn differences remain, writes CARL O'BRIEN

THE LATEST batch of census results for 2011 show the economic downturn has not been an equal opportunities destroyer.

While it has wrecked the livelihoods and aspirations of thousands of women, the shockwaves of the financial collapse have hit men even harder still.

The dramatic decline in male-dominated areas of employment such as construction and manufacturing industries led to a sharp increase in unemployment.

Job growth in female-dominated areas of employment such as teaching, health and social work meant women were hit to a lesser degree overall in relative terms – though this was still considerable.

The male unemployment rate was 22 per cent in 2011, compared to a female unemployment rate of 15 per cent.

The difference was more acute among young men and women. Some 41 per cent of men in their early 20s were unemployed, compared to 28 per cent of women.

The result is that traditional gaps between men and women across a number of areas are narrowing rapidly.

Take the numbers in work. There were 853,000 women at work in 2011, compared to 955,000 men – a gap of just more than 100,000. This is the smallest ever gap on record.

When the numbers at work were broken down to employees and the self-employed, there was a new first: the number of female employees (785,000) exceeded the number of male employees (710,000).

There was a similar trend in labour force participation rates. This is a measure of the number of people who are at work or available for work who are aged 15 or more.

The proportion of women in the labour force rose to 54.6 per cent in 2011. The male participation rate, on the other hand, fell from 72 per cent to 69.4 per cent. This gap – now 14.8 percentage points – is at its lowest ever point.

Outside of the workplace, the economic turmoil has also led to a narrowing in the gap between men and women studying in the education system.

For years, there have been more females than males. However, the number of male students – young and old – increased strongly as work opportunities shrank.

As a result, the proportion of male students increased from 47 per cent to 49 per cent between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, while females fell from 53 per cent to 51 per cent.

The narrowing of many of these gaps might, on first glance, represent evidence of progress towards greater gender equality. On closer inspection, the evidence isn’t always compelling.

Females were educated to a higher level than males and accounted for 56 per cent of those with a third-level qualification.

The gap between men’s and women’s incomes also narrowed.

Women earned 93 per cent of what men earned per hour in 2011 when measured by hourly income.

However, women continued to do the vast bulk of unpaid caring, though this gap also appears to be narrowing.

The number of female carers outnumbered men (114,100 compared to 73,000), but there was a 20 per cent increase in the number of male carers.

Despite much progress, the glass ceiling still appears to be firmly in place. Men accounted for the majority of managers (54 per cent) and higher professionals. Women, by contrast, accounted for the majority of lower professionals and non-manual workers.

Women also dominated certain sectors of study such as health, social sciences, business and law. In fact, women accounted for more than 90 per cent of students in areas of study such childcare and youth services, and secretarial and office work, many of which are poorly paid.

Some gaps, the census results seem to say, are harder to bridge than others.