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Economy • Jobs • Social Policy

Women and labour market risk

Silja Häusermann - 12 June 2014

The processes of deindustrialisation, tertiarisation and labour market deregulation have led to a massive increase of the share of atypical employment – notably temporary and involuntary part-time employment – and unemployment in all countries of Western Europe. It is widely agreed that people affected by these forms of labour market vulnerability (so-called “labour market outsiders”) benefit most from specific, post-industrial forms of social policy, oriented towards flexicurity, social investment and enabling activation. However, it is still debated to what extent such investment-oriented policies should be a priority in the progressive social policy agenda, as compared to a focus on traditional, insurance-based income protection policies.

Indeed, since women are particularly affected by atypical employment, it has long been assumed that traditional household patterns mitigate the need for such specific outsider-policies. In other words: it was assumed that if female labour market outsiders cohabit with more secure labour market insiders, women would be at least partly shielded from material outsider risks through a “household safety net” provided by their partners.

However, such a view is increasingly erroneous. Only a small minority of women can be seen as shielded from labour market risk through their partner. Therefore addressing the specific social policy needs of, in particular, female labour market outsiders should be a priority for progressive politics in Europe.

1.    Addressing women’s labour market vulnerability
Non-standard forms of employment have spread massively across the societies of Western Europe in the past decades. Temporary employment is the most widespread form of atypical employment and accounts for almost 15 per cent of all jobs across Europe in 2012 (with top levels above 40 per cent in Southern Europe), followed by unemployment (close to 10 per cent) and involuntary part-time employment (about 5-10 per cent on average across Europe). In times of economic stability, the higher level of labour market vulnerability that these contracts entail remains largely obfuscated. But in a context of crisis or recession, people with such contracts are the first to drop out. This is why labour market dualisation has contributed to the trend of rising inequality that we have been witnessing throughout Europe over the past two decades.

Moreover, once these labour market outsiders need to rely on welfare benefits, they may even be entitled to significantly lower social rights than the insiders, because the traditional welfare states, especially in continental and Southern Europe, rely on social insurance as a mechanism of income protection. Social insurance, however, requires continuous and regular contribution records, which is precisely what the labour market outsiders lack. Therefore traditional social policy instruments often fail to address the specific welfare needs of labour market outsiders effectively. The welfare state that people in vulnerable employment contracts need looks quite different from the traditional male breadwinner welfare state: such a post-industrial welfare state entails a basic layer of universal and redistributive income security, preferably financed through (progressive) income taxes rather than payroll contributions. And most importantly, it entails policies that ensure that flexible employment is not precarious employment. This implies “flexicurity”, i.e. social security for flexible jobs, social investment and enabling activation through access to education and vocational training, active labour market policies and affordable, good quality childcare services.

2.    Recognising that most labour market outsiders are women
Labour market vulnerability is very unequally distributed between men and women, age groups and across particular occupations. Universally, women are more often in unemployment and atypical employment than men, the young more often than older employees, and flexible, atypical employment is more widespread in the service sector, both low- and high-skilled.

Since female labour market participation is higher in the younger cohorts, women are more likely to work in the service sector than men, and women are generally more affected by career interruptions due to non-paid childcare work, gender has become the key factor structuring the distribution of labour market vulnerability in Europe. Far more than half of the women working in medium- and low-skilled service sector jobs across Europe, for instance, are in atypical employment, while this is the case for only 25-30 per cent of the (much fewer) men in these same jobs. Even in the skilled and high-skilled service sector occupations, about half of the female employees hold non-standard jobs or experience unemployment. A social policy strategy addressing the needs and demands of labour market outsiders therefore cannot be gender-blind.

3.    No more save haven: the demise of the male breadwinner household

The fact that labour market vulnerability affects women particularly strongly has often been seen as a reason why the concrete material disadvantages outsiders are exposed to might be mitigated through the household. If female outsiders form a household with male insiders, even traditional social insurance income protection would contribute to the welfare and material security of outsiders. Moreover, it was assumed that in such a mixed household, even the social policy preferences, i.e. the type of policies individuals support and demand, would align on traditional income protection policies. This would imply a certain de-mobilisation of outsider needs, meaning that political parties would have little electoral interest in addressing such needs specifically.

However, such a view of the household as a “safety net” for female outsiders is increasingly erroneous for a number of reasons. First, most female outsiders cannot and do not rely on a secure male breadwinner. While it is indeed true that women cohabiting with partners in very privileged professions do not show a preference for outsider-oriented social policy, the vast majority of women show clear preferences for outsider policies, even if their partners are in standard employment.

The share of women in vulnerable labour market situations whose preferences are aligned with their insider partners ranges from less than 10 per cent in Scandinavia and Southern Europe to about 25 per cent in continental Europe. These low numbers may also reflect the overall high levels of household instability in Europe. Moreover, with increasing socio-structural homogamy, ever fewer women live in households with a secure partner. While in the US, recent numbers showed that women are the main breadwinners in almost 40 per cent of the households, this number is still below 20 per cent in Europe. However, it has increased substantially over the past ten years, especially in Southern Europe. With men being increasingly affected by labour market vulnerability as well, the needs and preferences of outsiders thereby gain increasing material and political saliency. Therefore, addressing the specific social policy needs of – still mostly female - labour market outsiders should be a priority for progressive politics in Europe.

Silja Häusermann is professor of political science at the University of Zurich.

This is a contribution to the “Making Progressive Politics Work” publication which informed the Amsterdam Progressive Governance Conference 2014.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: Opinion , Progressive Governance Conference , Progressive Governance , Growth , Social stability , Living standards , Policy Network , Global Progress , Competitiveness , Growth , Solidarity , Globalisation , Centre-left , Centre-left , Europe , EU , European Union , Eurozone , Southern Europe , Northern Europe , Production , Productivity , Growth , Wages , Investment , Jobs , Globalisation , Equality , Pre-distribution

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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