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An improving outlook for women in employment

Changes in the pattern of women's employment is often driven by major events.

The two world wars brought unprecedented numbers of women into the work place and led to them doing jobs previously reserved for men, and while less dramatic, the deepest recession in 70 years has also had a significant impact on women.

Exactly two years ago, female unemployment in Scotland was at a 23-year high but official figures show that the number of women in employment in Scotland has undergone a remarkable reverse, reaching a record high of 1,243,000.

That is likely to mean that fewer households are struggling to survive without a wage earner, and is part of a wider trend of rising employment in Scotland: nearly 100,000 more people were in work in the final quarter of last year compared to a year previously. Clearly, that is good news.

Yet a puzzling question lingers. Why should record numbers of women be in work now, at a time when unemployment as a whole is still above 7% and when women were apparently so badly hit at the height of the recession?

It is probably further confirmation of the fact that women tend to be over-represented in jobs that are part-time, temporary, low paid and low security. Women are more than three times as likely to work part-time than men.

These types of jobs, particularly in the service sector, are often the first for organisations to cut in a recession and are promptly reinstated when the economy improves. Two or even three women can be employed in part-time, low-paid jobs for roughly the cost of one full-time managerial or executive post. While Scotland may have unprecedented numbers of woman in work, it is likely that large numbers of those individuals, while no doubt grateful to have employment, would prefer to have better paid jobs, more hours and permanent contracts. Many, facing ongoing wage restraint, will wonder what the chances are of seeing a significant pay rise again.

Looked at in that way, this is not quite the unadulterated good news it might first appear. Still, falls in the unemployment totals are to be welcomed and, if the recovery can be sustained (as seems to be the case), the opportunities for part-time roles to become full-time and temporary contracts permanent will grow.

So who is to be thanked for this improvement in the employment market? Inevitably, both the Scottish and UK governments are claiming they are responsible, sharing credit being an alien concept. A room full of economists could spend a year debating growth strategies, work programmes, childcare policies and apprenticeships, and still fail to reach a consensus on who deserves the gold star.

What is more, the recovery in the eurozone will also have had an impact and, for that, neither government can claim responsibility.

The question of who should get the credit is ultimately much less important, though, than whether the improvement can be sustained. For once, after years of economic gloom, there appear to be grounds for optimism.

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Careers and Jobs

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