IFS study charts rise of women in the workforce

New analysis into changing labour market participation over the last four decades plots the route to today's record number of women in work and the decline of the traditional single-earner couple.

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IFS researchers, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), looked at changes in women’s working patterns over the last four decades, regarding the insights important for understanding the persistent differences in men and women’s pay.The study, The Rise and Rise of Women’s Employment in the UK, found today’s historically high female labour force participation rate is being driven most by mothers of young children and partners of high-earning men – populations traditionally associated with economic inactivity.

Women’s labour market activity driving social and economic change

Today, more than three quarters of women aged 25-54 in the UK are in paid work, reaching a record high of 78% in 2017.This compares to a figure of fewer than 60% in the mid-1970s, when nearly half of couples with dependent children had just one adult in paid work; a proportion that now stands at 27%. The increase in maternal employment is concentrated among those with children of pre-school or primary-school age, and also among the partners of relatively high-earning men.

More partners of high-earners in paid employment

Forty years ago, mothers partnered with men in the bottom and top halves of the male earnings distribution were equally likely to be in paid work, with employment rates of around 60%.Those figures are now around 70% and 80% respectively. This means that for every additional mother in employment partnered with a lower-earning man, there are around two additional mothers in employment partnered with a higher-earning man, says the IFS – statistics mobility professionals are likely to have direct experience of when supporting both male and female employees, their partners and families to relocate.
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Women much less likely to drop out of work after childbirth

The researchers also identified from data spanning decades that women are now much less likely to drop out of the labour market around the time they have their first child.  Just over four in ten (41%) women born in 1958 were in paid work when their first child was 2 years old. For women born in 1970, this figure was 58%, even though the employment rates for both cohorts were very similar five years before and ten years after the birth of their first child.

Regional differences in female workforce participation

Among the key findings is that the increase in women’s employment has varied significantly across the country.London has gone from having the highest female employment rate to the joint-lowest. In 1975, London’s employment rate among women aged 25-54 was the highest in the UK, at 63%. Yet, by the mid-2000s it had been overtaken by every other region in this respect. Despite strong employment growth in recent years, in 2017 its figure of 74% was the joint-lowest in the UK, together with Northern Ireland.

Female workforce participation 'a huge social and economic change'

Barra Roantree, a research economist at the IFS and an author of the report, said: “Employment rates for working-age women in the UK have increased dramatically over the past four decades, particularly for those with young children.“This is a huge social and economic change – the vast majority of couples with children now have two adults in paid work.“With the earnings of women increasingly important for these families, understanding the reasons behind persistent differences in the wages of men and women is all the more important.”Email or call Fiona Murchie on + 44 (0)1892 891334 to find out more about Relocate's new "Think Women" community.
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