Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio Four is not my usual listening; but I caught it last week coming back from the school run and found a fascinating statistical discussion. The previous day they had had a debate about female unemployment in the UK. The Junior Minister for Women, Jo Swinson, had said that more women than ever before now have jobs; employment for women is therefore at all-time high. Hooray! Aren’t we doing well!
Her opponent, Vivienne Hayes, speaking for the pressure group the Women’s Resource Centre, said the opposite: more women than ever before are unemployed. It is unemployment, not employment, that is at an all-time high. Boo! Hiss! Do something about it!
The hapless interviewer was stuck in the middle and baffled: One of her two interviewees must have her facts wrong: they surely could not both be right. Employment cannot be at a record high and a record low at the same time.
The entire Women’s Hour team was obviously equally baffled; and the next day, to their credit, they got in a statistician from Radio Four’s mathematical programme More or Less (now happily back for a new series) to try to sort it out. That was the bit that I heard. You can hear it here.
The answer? As you have already guessed both ARE right. Shorn of a few irrelevant sidelines, the Minister is right because more women that ever do have jobs; her opponent is right because more women than ever before want jobs but cannot find them.
If you want the good-news numbers, 13.7 million women are now in work. 30 years ago the figure was 9 million. So yes – more women that ever before are working.
If you want the bad-news numbers, 1.1 million women are now looking for jobs but can’t find one. That is the highest it has been for more than 30 years. So – yes again. More women than ever before are unemployed.
Is this a contradiction? Not at all. Both can be, and are, right for the simple reason that there are now many more women than ever before. So more can be employed, and more can be unemployed, at the same time.
At least, there are more women than ever before if you are careful about what you mean by ‘women.’ It is all about the denominator – the number on the bottom of the division sum. Employment rates are defined as the number of women who have jobs divided by…what? The total number of women in the country? Not so. Divided instead by the number of women who have or who are looking for jobs – and this last is the number that keeps going up. Those women who are full-time home-makers, who are happy that way, and who are therefore not looking for work - they are left out of the sum. Thirty years ago, that was a lot of women - 45% of them. Now it is less than 30%
Before, since not many women wanted jobs, most of those could find jobs; so unemployment was low. Today, it is different. Very many more women want jobs; there are certainly more jobs than there were, but not nearly enough more to go round.
So it is true that more women than ever before have paid jobs. Call that number A. But it also true that many more women than ever are looking for jobs and cannot find them. Call that number B. And A and B are both at record highs. What has gone down is C, the number of women happily at home who are not looking for work.
To decide whether employment policies are working or not, it might be more useful to look not at numbers but at proportions. What proportion of women wanting work cannot find it? The employment rate is A/(A+B) . The Minister told us that A got bigger; her opponent told us that B got bigger. None of that tells us whether A/(A+B) got bigger or smaller – we would have to know the exact As and Bs to work it out. So both of them chucked figures about and neither of them told us the one thing we really needed to know. Thank you, politicians and pressure groups.
This is hardly complicated statistics. It is really very basic maths indeed. But it was enough to baffle apparently a whole group of intelligent radio-programme makers, and probably also a large chunk of the radio-listening country.
Which is one reason why we need programmes like More or Less. It is being broadcast on Fridays at 4.30pm, repeated Sundays at 8.00 pm and you can hear the latest ones on podcast here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd/broadcasts/2012/11.