Sydney Morning Herald
Wednesday, August 18, 1999

A case of jobs for the girls

The labour market demands less brawn, more brain, and men are losing their edge, writes ROSS GITTINS

By Ross Gittins
Sydney Morning Herald

A contrary animal like the economy lends itself to differing interpretations. It's almost always possible for the pessimists to complain that the glass is half empty, while the optimists exult that it's half full. It occurs to me that there is a similar dichotomy when it comes to describing the state of the jobs market.

If you look at it from a male point of view, it's pretty dismal. But if you look from a female viewpoint, it's not so bad. Guess whose viewpoint dominates the media commentary?

Try this. In the six years to June - the period of labour market recovery following the recession of the early '90s - the total number of jobs in Australia grew by 1.15 million, an increase of 15 per cent.

Impressed? Don't be. Almost half those additional jobs were part-time - and most of those casual. The proportion of workers able to find only part-time work has climbed to 27 per cent.

And although male full-time workers constituted more than half of all workers in 1993, they got fewer than a third of the extra jobs created in the past six years.

Does that tale sound vaguely familiar? It should - it's the story we've been getting for years. But it's a male-centred view of the universe.

Now let's tell the same story from a female perspective. Although women constituted only 42 per cent of the workforce in 1993, they have got more than half the extra jobs created. Today, they make up almost a third of the full-time workforce and 72 per cent of the part-time workforce.

The point is, what we have witnessed over the past six years - and, indeed, for at least the past 35 years - is the Feminisation of the Workforce. And whether you regard this as a good thing or a bad thing is very much a matter of your perspective.

In 1964 (the year I left school), less than a third of women participated in the world of work; today it's well over half.

Then, women held a quarter of the full-time jobs; today, as we've seen, it's almost a third.

In those days, part-time jobs represented less than 9 per cent of all jobs; today it's 27 per cent. And today, as then, women hold more than 70 per cent of those part-time jobs. That shows you how the workforce is being feminised. But, although it is rarely said in as many words, this long-term trend is almost always portrayed by the media as a bad thing.

First and foremost in this (possibly unconscious) male-centred view is the near-universal denigration of part-time work.

We're often reminded, for instance, that 25 per cent of the people with part-time jobs would prefer to work more hours.

But I don't remember seeing anyone ever do the obvious and put that statistic the other way round: 75 per cent of part-timers are perfectly happy with the number of hours they are working.

Why would anyone ever be content only working part-time? Perhaps because she is a married woman whose husband has left her holding more than half the baby?

In fact, 84 per cent of married women with part-time jobs are content with the time they are working.

Think about it from a woman's perspective and the reasons are obvious. Of course, another reason you might not want to work more hours is if you were a full-time student. And married women and students (more of them female than male) constitute the great bulk of part-time workers.

So the assumption that there is something fundamentally unsatisfactory about the growth of part-time employment is unwarranted. It's a hangover from the days when jobs were intended to be occupied by male breadwinners.

Of late, however, the focus of dissatisfaction has shifted from part-time jobs to casual jobs. About two-thirds of part-time jobs are casual, and the proportion of casual full-time jobs has doubled during the '90s to 12 per cent.

There is no denying that some casual jobs are insecure, on-and-off, and quite unsatisfactory to the people holding them.

But the unthinking assumption that all casual jobs are like that betrays the persistence of the male-breadwinner mentality.

Official figures show that the average duration of casual jobs is 3 1/2 years. And the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey of 1995 found that 70 per cent of casuals were satisfied with their jobs overall, compared with 62 per cent of permanent employees.

Casuals are not entitled to holiday and sick leave. That is what defines casual employment, and we are always being reminded of it.

What we are not reminded of is that casuals receive a loading - usually about 20 per cent - on their hourly rate to compensate them for their lack of entitlements.

Which is better, the eventual entitlement or the money up-front? If you think all jobs should be suitable for male breadwinners, the absence of entitlements is a bad thing. But many married women, students and seasonal workers don't see it that way. They prefer cash in the hand.

But why is the workforce becoming more female? Why are women getting more of the new jobs than men?

To be convincing, any explanation of changes in the labour market has to have two sides: changes in the type of labour employers are demanding, and changes in the type of labour the populace wants to supply.

For many years, the industrial structure of our economy - and every developed economy - has been changing in a direction that reduces the demand for male, blue-collar, full-time labour and that increases the demand for female, white-collar labour, much of it part-time.

Primary and secondary industry, farming, mining and manufacturing, has been raising its productivity by using more capital equipment and less labour. The jobs that remain have required less brawn and more brain, which makes them more suitable for women.

Meanwhile, the public sector has expanded and consumers are devoting less of each dollar they spend to goods and more to services. Almost all the new jobs have come from, are coming from and will come from the growth of the services sector.

We're talking about jobs in retailing, hospitality and recreation, education and health, communications and financial and business services. They fit women like a glove.

But why have women been so ready and willing to supply this demand? In short, because of their rising level of educational attainment.

When mothers and fathers decided that their daughters should have as much educational opportunity as their sons, the die was cast.

Only a quarter of women born before 1938 have post-school qualifications and two-thirds of them left school early. Of those born after 1960, however, half have post-school qualifications and only a third quit school prematurely.

In the quest for a good education, girls have overtaken boys. The Year 12 retention rate is 66 per cent for boys and 78 per cent for girls.

And females constitute 54 per cent of all higher-education students.

When women devote so much time and money to acquiring an education, it's hardly surprising they want to exploit their investment in paid employment; nor that they want the same kind of social recognition that employment has always brought to men.

All that stuff about married women being forced to work by the high cost of living and the difficulty of making ends meet? It's more penis-centred delusion.