Is Gender Equality the Unexpected Bonus of the Financial Crisis?

Back in 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy; an event that came to mark the beginning of a financial crisis. Employment rates sank, falling to levels that hadn’t been seen in decades. The future looked suddenly bleak.

But ten years on, the picture is entirely different; the UK employment rate is now at 60.8%, the highest it’s been since 1974. Perhaps more interestingly, though, is the rise in the number of women in employment. A recent briefing paper from the Institute of New Economic Thinking at Oxford Martin School sheds some light on why this has happened, and what it means for the future.

The Data

It’s not unusual for male employment to be hardest hit when it comes to a recession. It’s a pattern that was seen in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and it has two causes. The first is that traditionally male roles are usually hardest hit; jobs like mining and manufacturing often have to lay off significant numbers of their predominantly male workforce in a recession. And of course, the pay gap has a negative effect here. When times are hard, companies shed their highest paid workers and that means men.

But while male jobs have bounced back to pre-crisis levels, it is female employment that has seen the greatest increase. 58% of the growth in employment can be accounted for by women getting jobs. That increase is shown across all age ranges but one, and that’s the 65+ range where men had the edge. So, what contributed to this surge in female employment.

Why are Women Being Hired?

It’s likely that women were cheaper to employ. In spite of legislation that compels employers to reveal their gender pay gap, 80% of firms still play women less, by an average of 18.4%. Being able to pay women less, makes them a more attractive proposition for hiring.


And it seems that the governments offer of 30 hours free childcare has helped mothers to get back to work. Whereas the age group 25-34 (when most women who choose to start their families) had the slowest employment growth, the older age groups saw women re-joining the work force at an increasing rate.

Employment Rate – The Future

Perhaps the most interesting age group, however was the 16-24 bracket. For the first time, there was no discernible gap in terms of employment at this age. The authors of the report stated that it was reasonable to expect that the gap will not reappear, making this the first generation to know equality in terms of employment, even if wages still need to catch up.

Will this spread to other age groups? Yes, but the changes will be slower, as the age range increases. This may be a factor of cultural expectations from people in those age ranges, rather than employers making those choices. Older generations still have more firmly ingrained gender roles, and so will show change more slowly than younger people who have benefitted from the hard work of equality champions over the decades.

Employment levels in the UK are now almost 61%, the highest they have been since the 1970’s. While historically, the male-favoured status quo has been returned once the crisis is over, it seems that modern Britain is ready for some change. Here’s to hoping that the pay gap decreases soon and brings with it genuine equality.

About the author

Sarah Dixon writes for Inspiring Interns, which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and graduate jobs.