Why isn't male unemployment an issue?

New Statesman
Two men enter a jobcentre. Photograph: Getty Images

The last time the male unemployment rate was lower than female was September 1980. Ever since then, men have been more likely to be unemployed than women. At times, like in the boom of the late 1980s, the difference was small -- just 0.1 percentage point between them. Other times, it was enormous. In the early 1990s, male unemployment rocketed to a high of 12.8 per cent, up 5.7 points in a little under two years, while female unemployment was almost unchanged, increasing by just 1.5 points.

Indeed, for men, the unemployment crisis under John Major was actually worse than under Thatcher, peaking 0.4 points ahead. Both recessions hit men worse than women, but under Thatcher the base was better.

This great recession, like the previous two, has also undeniably hit men harder. Trough to peak, the unemployment rate increased by 3.6 points for men and 2.9 for women. True, this is the worst female unemployment for 19 years, and only the worst male for 16 years; but that says less about this recession and more about the disproportionate impact of the last.

Recently, this macro pattern has started to reverse. The six months has been worse for women than men, with the Fawcett Society estimating in March that 80 per cent of the job losses in the previous three months had come from women. But this just represents an expected patterm. As Betsey Stevenson, visiting economics professor at Princeton University, told PolitiFact about similar statistics in the US, "it’s a historical pattern that has held in previous recessions." Just like the other historical pattern that has held: overall, men are hit worse.

All of which makes it strange that, when gender is brought into the unemployment question, it is through headlines like:

Female employment hit by public sector cuts and childcare costs

Women told: your place is on the dole

Female unemployment highest for 15 years; outlook bleak

It's not that there ought to be headlines and leaders declaring David Cameron to have a men problem. For a number of reasons, the broader accusation that this government isn't very friendly to women is accurate. But unemployment isn't one of those reasons. Men were hit earlier, faster, and harder, yet there has been scarcely a mention of that fact.

The problem is, men doing badly isn't politically interesting. No-one gets accused of sexism if it occurs; no-one propses gender-targeted intervention, and no-one really suggests that the problem is distinguishable from overall unemployment. There are two possible ways to read this. One is that, as James Ball comments today, whereas talk of "sisterhood" is a positive image, self-affirming and strong, talk of "brotherhood" is "not nearly such a positive image, reeking of conspiracy and cabal". But I'd suggest it's a different reason: men are perceived by society at large as "normal", while women are still relegated to "minority" status, despite making up half the population.

Usually this phenomenon is seen as anti-women. Look, for example, at the recent furore when Lego announced "Lego Friends", or Lego for girls, turning what had previously been a gender neutral toy into a boys toy by default. But it can hurt men just as much.

We need to be more open about gender in every area of society,  so let's talk about men.