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Will the cuts change the role of women?

Mark Easton | 20:10 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

As my train was pulling into Birmingham New Street this morning, a woman in the carriage was on her mobile phone. She was offering sympathy to a friend who had just been told she had lost her job. I could only hear half the conversation, but there was talk of £100,000 worth of cuts to a budget and it was clear that the person on the other end of the line was profoundly upset and angry.

There will be many more conversations like that over the next few years and most of them will involve women.

The expansion of the public sector over the last few decades transformed work opportunities for millions of women. The new jobs, many in the caring professions, were often advertised as family-friendly, a good fit for those attempting to juggle children and a career.

For single mums it often made full-time work possible. For many more households, it provided a valuable second income. Today, twice as many women as men work in the public sector and 40% of all female workers are employed by the state.

Of the half a million public sector job cuts, more than 300,000 are likely to be women. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber recently told me that the "disproportionate effect" will be unfair and said he has demanded the government conduct an equality impact assessment. So far, he says, he has had no reply.

Such a test, it might be argued, is too narrow. Men suffered more during the recession. Women may take a slightly bigger hit in the cuts. Swings and roundabouts.

But the counter-argument is that, while private sector jobs should return as the economy recovers, the plan is for the public sector to shrink permanently. What's more, there may be a double whammy for female workers. If working mums lose their jobs they will not need so much childcare - another industry very largely occupied by women.

I recently put this point to Jill Kirby, director of the influential Conservative think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. "It may be better news for women not to spend money on childcare any more and to look after their own children and fit jobs into the child's day," she told me, pointing out that "women going out to do jobs to pay for childcare generates a type of work which then requires subsidy from the state".

"Are you saying women should be looking after their children at home?" I asked.
"For women who would like to be under less pressure to work, who would rather be at home, yes," she replied.
 

For some Conservatives, it would seem, the effect of the cuts on female workers is a useful nudge to changing the role of women in society. It is not a prospect, however, that enjoys support at the TUC.

"If there's a suggestion of reverting back to an early model of stay-at-home mums, I don't think that would be seen as socially progressive at all" says Mr Barber.

It is not just the direct effect of public sector job losses that may change the role of women. Some suspect that the foot-soldiers in David Cameron's "Big Society" will be predominantly female.

Geoff Mulgan, former strategy advisor to Tony Blair and now head of think tank the Young Foundation, says women will have to take responsibility as the state withdraws from childcare and elder-care.

"There's an assumption by politicians that women will be willing to bear this burden.  But many will be pretty resentful that they have to go back into the home with the disappearance of large number of jobs in the public sector, all to pay for the mistakes of a rather well-paid group of men in London."

So, one of the consequences of the shrinking state outlined today may be that women stay at home rearing children and building the "Big Society" instead of going out to work. Whether that is a good thing, a bad thing or a "fair" thing will be hotly debated.

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