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The story of the rise of women in work over the past 25 years is the story of Australia's economy, says

Greg Jericho.

Last week we once again saw politicians - notably, Tony Abbott - worrying about what women want.

It was interesting that the latest gambit in Mr Abbott's Battle for the Sexes followed David Marr's Quarterly Essay concerning alleged events at Sydney University in 1978, as that is the first year of the ABS standard Labour Force data series.

A review of the data shows how greatly the role of women in the workforce has changed since then, and why perhaps using one's wife as an election prop is no longer as effective as it might have once been.

Back when The Bee Gees ruled the airwaves, women accounted for only 35 per cent of the workforce. After a massive surge during the 1980s and slower incline since then, women now account for just over 45 per cent.

(Click image to enlarge)

However, women's participation in the labour force has always been quite high between the ages of 20 and 24. Even back in 1978, 70 per cent of women of such an age were either employed or looking for work, but during the ages of 25-34 their participation dipped as women stayed home and raised kids. Their participation then increased slightly after those years, before again declining, not surprisingly, as women (and likely their partners) neared retirement age.

This "nappy valley" (as the ABS calls it) during the ages 25-34 was quite pronounced in 1978, but flattened out distinctly during the 1980s and 1990s to a point where now women of that age are more likely to be in the labour force than those younger than them - indeed, their participation continues to increase till they reach 55 years of age.

Such a change engenders a great deal of policy change. If you want to know why day care is a bigger issue now than it was 20 years ago, that graph pretty much sums it up. One small aspect of how things have changed is that in 1978, the participation rate of married women was below that of all women (41.2 per cent to 43.5 per cent); now, it is actually higher (62.0 per cent to 58.8 per cent).

The main reason for this increase in participation has been the increase in part-time/casual work. Back in 1978, 66 per cent of women who worked did so full-time (compared to 94 per cent of men who worked); now that figure is down to 54 per cent. Men have also increased their level of part-time work, and now only 83 per cent of men who work do so full-time.

Since 1978, the number of men working part-time has increased over 400 per cent, while the number of men working full-time has limped along - not even keeping pace with population growth.

With this change in the labour market there has also been some change in the gender split of various occupations. The ABS only looks at occupations from 1996 onwards, but even in just that short period there has been significant change. The three occupations with the strongest growth since 1996 for women are Professionals (91 per cent), Community and Personal Service Workers (83 per cent) and Managers (75 per cent).

The growth in women working in "Professions" has increased to the extent that now over half of all such occupations are held by women - placing it with the three traditional women occupations of "Clerical and Administration", "Sales" and "Community and Personal Service" as those occupations in which there are more women than men:

Indeed, so great has been the growth in "Professionals" that they now account for the greatest share of occupations held by women, with just over a quarter of all women working in such occupations. The previous most common occupation of "Clerical and Administration" has declined from around 30 per cent of all women workers to now accounting for just under a quarter.

However, despite this change in occupation, the industries in which women work has not altered greatly in the past 28 years.

Of the top 15 most popular industries for women in 1984, the only one no longer in the 2012 top 15 is that of Textile, Leather, Clothing and Footwear Manufacturing, for the obvious reason that those jobs have almost all gone overseas.

The other big declines in share of women's employment reflect the changes in our economy - the share of women working in retailing has gone from 1 in 10 to around 1 in 13, a result of the decline in staff being employed in department and retail stores. Similarly there has been a sharp drop in the percentage of women who now work in "Finance" - a reflection of the closure of many bank branches and the fall in bank teller positions; and also in "Agriculture" - a sign perhaps of the decline in the family farm, and the shrinking economies in the rural regions.

The biggest growth industry for women was that of "Social Assistance Services", which includes childcare work, followed by "Professional, Scientific and Technical Services", which includes jobs such as lawyers and accountants. The third biggest growth occupation was "Medical and other Health Care Services" - reflective of our ageing population. Also showing a significant increase was "Food and Beverage Services" - indicative of the growing service economy and also that you now only need to walk about 10 paces in any CBD to buy a coffee. 1984 (per cent of all women) 2012 (per cent of all women) 1 2 3 4 5 6 Other Store-Based Retailing 10.02 Preschool and School Education 7.87 Other Store-Based Retailing 6.92 6.89 7.84

Preschool and School Education 8.77 Hospitals 7.11

Food and Beverage Services 5.88

Food and Beverage Services Food Retailing 4.48

Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 6.39 4.35

Hospitals

Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 5.56

Medical and Other Health Care Services

7 8 9 10 11

Public Administration Agriculture Finance 3.57 3.81

3.92

Social Assistance Services 4.76

5.11

Public Administration

Food Retailing 4.09 3.42 Residential Care Services 3.51

Residential Care Services

Textile, Leather, Clothing and Footwear Manufacturing 3.25 3.01 Medical and Other Health Care Services 3.06 Personal and Other Services Tertiary Education 2.07 2.77

Personal and Other Services

12 13 14 15

Tertiary Education

2.50

Administrative Services 2.12

Finance 2.08 2.01 Agriculture 1.73

Social Assistance Services

Source ABS: 6291.0.55.003

Thus the story of the women's labour market in the past 25-30 years is very much the story of Australia's economy. It might lack the mining industry, but given that industry only employs around 10 per cent of all workers, most people will have a stronger connection with the concerns women have had with finding, keeping and managing work.

The shift also recognises that "women's jobs" are also changing. With women now occupying over a third of all manager positions, and growth areas in occupations requiring high skills and advanced education, women are very much central to any discussion of economic policy and not a peripheral subject to be thrown a bone come election time.

Also of note, Margie Abbott as the manager of a childcare centre is right at the heart of the growth area, and so too is ex-lawyer, and now manager of the nation, Prime Minister Julia Gillard. But only one of those two is on a ballot.