When unemployment is rife: Hard times for working women

By Margaret Maruani, Le Monde diplomatique, September 1997

A recent European Commission report confirms that, despite efforts to promote sexual equality and all the talk of choice and incentives to stay at home and care for the family, more and more women are coming on to the labour market, most of them taking poorly paid jobs. Although women make up a growing proportion of the working population in Europe, they are suffering more than men from the general deterioration in working conditions and complacency about poverty.

After 20 years of mass unemployment, despite all the forecasts, the number of working women continues to rise. Many people are clearly concerned by this, by its inflexibility, its persistence, its invasiveness even. And it comes at a time when the compulsory reduction in working hours is becoming a permanent feature of the French, indeed the European, economic scene.

Just when it might seem fair to share out the rare commodity that employment has become, women are seeking more of it. There is something perverse about the rise in the number of working women just when it has become fashionable to proclaim the end of work value (1). Their determination to work does not just seem out of place, it remains basically unwarranted or, more precisely, less warranted than that of men. This small difference clearly draws the line, when the right to work for all is meaningless, between what is evident for men but incidental for women.

Women have never had a right to a job these last 20 years, either symbolically, politically or ideologically. With the advent and persistence of mass unemployment, a number of clichés about women's freedom of choice—their freedom not to work—have reappeared. They have remained on the labour market, but at a high price: the employment crisis has severely affected their working conditions and, even if they do well in their jobs, they are under constant threat of unemployment and the stigma of inequality.

On the eve of the new millennium, female employment continues its irresistible rise: there are now nearly 11.5 million working women in France compared with 6.5 million in 1960. And this is not peculiar to France: the same phenomenon can be found in our neighbours right across Europe. The feminisation of the workforce is proceeding apace, whilst male employment is static or on the decline. Between 1965 and 1992, the number of men in work fell slightly, from 83-81 million. Over the same period of time, however, the number of working women increased markedly, from 40 million in 1965 to 54 million in 1992 (2).

In the 1960s, women made up only around 30% of Europe's working population; by 1994 this had risen to something over 42% (3). The 1980s, which ushered in mass unemployment, therefore had no effect on the movement towards a more gender balanced labour market that had begun 40 years earlier. Moreover, this is the first time in the history of wage earning that women have invaded the labour market in a time of high unemployment.

As we have seen, this advance has occurred despite unemployment, but unemployment has also been the price. Although the employment crisis has not driven women out of jobs, it has created hard core areas where women are under-represented and under-employed, well established areas that have come to be accepted. It has also spelled the end of professional equality.

Gender and social class

So the question for the future is not, as one may have feared, of a woman's place being in the home. Since 20 years of mass unemployment have not stood in the way of a steady increase in the number of working women, it is hard to see who might think that it was.

True, technocrats and governments of all colours periodically imagine that some kind of allowance or mother's wage might persuade them to withdraw from the labour market and make way for men. But which jobs would they vacate? Would unemployed males be willing to replace women in the jobs they have traditionally done: nurses, secretaries, check-out operators, cleaners? And how much would these women have to be paid to leave their jobs?

The real burden of widespread unemployment therefore falls on women's working conditions and terms of employment. Women are no longer a reserve. The frequent rhetoric about women being full-time wives and mothers must therefore really be about legitimising every kind of inequality. The suggestion that women might withdraw silently from the job market and do nothing clearly means that their rights in the matter are of no importance, subject as ever to the contingencies of the moment. And for them to be unemployed is less of a problem than it is for men.

But women's unemployment is greater, deeper and more structural than men's. From this point of view, the picture over the last 20 years clearly shows there is under-employment among women. The figures are clear enough: in France, less than half the people in work (45%) are women, but more than half of the unemployed (51%). According to a survey conducted by the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research (known as Insee) in 1996 (4), the overall employment rate (12.1%) breaks down into 10.4% for men and 14.2% for women. This excessive unemployment is encountered in all age and socio-professional groups, but the situation is most critical among young people under the age of 25.

The study shows that in France one quarter of young people present on the labour market are unemployed. Fair enough, but what is often overlooked is that if you break the figures down according to sex, the under twenty-fives' unemployment rate is 22% for men and 32% for women. The breakdown by socio-professional group also reveals major disparities: 5% for professionals and executives, but 16% for female white collar workers and as much as 21% for manual workers. This state of affairs is not new, but it is remarkably invisible: who bothers to mention, in the socio-political debate, that most of the young unemployed are women? Or that, among women, there is three times as much unemployment among white-collar workers as among executives and four times as much among manual workers?

The silence is all the more deafening because the rhetoric about unemployment is generally targeted on particular groups: we hear about youth unemployment, graduate unemployment, unemployment among the unskilled, the over forties, etc. This division into age groups or levels of education only serves to mask one very simple phenomenon: the selectivity of unemployment reflects the most enduring of social inequalities—those of gender and social class.

There are therefore clearly unemployment tolerance thresholds based on implicit social criteria. Which brings us back to the question of the right to work, of the legitimacy of having a job. If the high level of female unemployment is so invisible, it is not out of ignorance, oversight or indifference. It has its roots in something deeper: society's tolerance of unemployment among women (5). This is not something peculiar to France: it is endemic in all the countries of the European Union (6): in 1994, 10.2% of men and 13% of women were unemployed.

There is also another disparity, less well-known but equally well established: when women are unemployed, they receive far lower benefits than men. In the European Union, one unemployed man in two receives unemployment benefit, but only one in three unemployed women.

But being unemployed does not only mean being without work. It also means being part of a group whose right to a job is recognised and that is counted as such. Being without a job may result in a variety of situations ranging from demoralisation to forced inactivity, with many grey areas on the edges of the labour market. Most of these margins are made up of women. Women who are not paid unemployment benefit, women who have lost heart and given up looking for a job, housewives relegated into submissive inactivity; the routes are varied, the statistical names many, but they all lead in the same direction: to pockets of poverty on the edge of unemployment. Pockets of poverty that are all the less visible because they escape the usual counts of what is called unemployment.

As a consequence, there has been a real explosion in under-employment and insecurity since the early 1980s. For a growing number of people, unemployment is not merely synonymous with not having a job. It is also an effective means of applying pressure on the working conditions and terms of employment of all the men and women still in work. This is the context in which under-employment has become established alongside the various forms of insecurity put in place since the mid 1970s: temporary work, fixed-term contracts, training schemes of all kinds, and now in particular job creation contracts.

In 1996, Insee recorded 1.5 million persons in a situation of under- employment, that is 1.5 million who said they wished to work more. But, like unemployment, under-employment is highly selective. In the form of part-time working it affects large numbers of women. In France, 85% of part-time workers are women. In the European Union the figure varies between 76% and 90%. But in France, unlike many of its European neighbours, part-time working is a recent phenomenon. To be precise, it took off at the beginning of the 1980s, when there were only about 1.5 million part-timers as compared to 3.5 million today. Which means that in France part-time working has not contributed to the growth in numbers of working women.

In fact, it was as full-time workers that women flooded on to the job market in the 1960s. Part-time work did not appear until the early 1980s, the scion of mass unemployment and government incentives. The growth in part-time working was a consequence of unemployment. Part-time means crisis time. However, it continues to be described benignly as reconciling family and working life, or in terms of a flexibility that women are said to want. Which women? On what terms? For what kind of wages ? For what hours?

The reality is quite different. Domestic cleaners, shop assistants, check-out operators, child minders, office workers: how many are now working split shifts for a monthly income that is scarcely a living wage? Over the years, part-time working has become, de facto, a form of under-employment reserved for women (7), creating a process of hidden impoverishment. Hidden because every mention of part-time working is muddied with talk of choice and flexible or reduced working hours.

All discussion of part-time working focuses on the question of time and the matter of wages is passed over. But part-time working means part-time wages. Under-employment inevitably results in lower pay. Part-time working means that hundreds of thousands of women are working for a monthly wage less than the statutory minimum. But there are no known figures about it. We do not know how many women are working for less than the basic minimum. Most of the part-time jobs created in the last 15 years are in unskilled and poorly paid sectors of women's work. But half the statutory minimum wage is no more than the basic social security allowance.

The silence of the figures is not without significance. It hides a social phenomenon that is hard to admit to and is usually the subject of finger pointing when the United States is mentioned: the development of a fringe of working poor, people who are neither unemployed, nor social outcasts, nor on assistance, but who work without managing to earn a living. Most of them by far happen to be women.

We are now living in a society of rampant unemployment. With well over 3.5 million registered as out of work, unemployment has now turned into non-stop blackmail in the workplace: fear of redundancy, pressure on wages, threats to rates and hours of work. This has not reduced women's determination to stay on the job market. But it has started a trend towards the feminisation of poverty—and this time it is on this side of the Atlantic. More about Margaret Maruani. Translated by Malcolm Greenwood


(1) See among others, Dominique Meda's book, Le Travail, une valeur en voie de disparition, Aubier, Paris, 1995.

(2) Employment in Europe 1993, Commission of the European Communities, Brussels.

(3) Eurostat, Enquête sur les forces de travail, Luxembourg, 1994.

(4) 1996 survey of employment, Insee résultats, No. 492-493, 203 pages, 149 F.

(5) Teresa Torns, Chômages, in La place des femmes, les enjeux de l'identité et de l'égalité au regard des sciences sociales, La Découverte, Paris, 1995.

(6) See Annie Gauvin, Le sur-chômage féminin à la lumière des comparaisons internationales, Les Cahiers du Mage, Paris, CNRS-Iresco, Paris, No. 3-4, 1995.

(7) See Margaret Maruani and Chantal Nicole, Au labeur des dames, Syros, Paris, 1989.