Women have maxed out the job market, not just their credit cards

In troubled times there is nothing women love better, so the age-old story goes, than a little retail therapy. It's why lipstick sales are said to rise in a recession, as women seek affordable ways to get their fix: shopping, we're invited to conclude, is too deeply ingrained in female psyches to stop just because the sky is falling in.

So how inconvenient that research out this month from the pollsters TNS-BMRB should find that it's now men, not women, who are most likely to say they would spend any un­expected spare cash on something enjoyable. (Women are slightly keener to save it, put it in a pension, or use it to pay down debt - anything but shop.) And how unfortunate that when the Economist examined lipstick sales a few years ago it found they rose sometimes in recessions, but also sometimes during booms - suggesting the "lipstick index" may be more of an inspired marketing wheeze than a true economic indicator. But, nonetheless, the "born to shop" myth endures.

Newspaper features on debt endlessly repeat the same formula: photographs of women clutching fistfuls of shopping bags, illustrating sorry tales of irresponsible young wannabes stuffing wardrobes with things they couldn't afford. Women splurging recklessly, thoughtlessly, culpably on shoes and handbags have become symbols not just for high household indebtedness but for the whole toxic spirit of the Noughties bubble.

Wag swag

And where it wasn't the women's own fault, it was supposedly the fault of other, richer women whom they idolised. "Experts" queue up to explain that young women got into fin­ancial trouble by copying a "Wag" or celebrity lifestyle of ostentatious label-flaunting. Such unglamorous reasons for female debt as being more likely than men to be low earners, or lone parents juggling creditors just to keep the electricity on, get rather less coverage.

Strangely, the £10bn of personal debt held by men in 2010 is seldom deemed worthy of comment - presumably men only ever run up ruinous credit card bills for dull, serious reasons.

Gender differences in spending do exist. Female debt in 2010 was higher than male, at £13bn. But our obsession with sex'n'shopping means the differences are wildly exaggerated until reckless consumption wears an unmistakably female face - just as the banking crash (not always fairly) wears a male one, all pinstripes and testosterone-pumped traders. Men are judged on how they make money, women on how they spend it - a story surely as old as retail.

In some of the best-known lines of Pope's 18th-century satirical poem The Rape of the Lock, the pampered anti-heroine Belinda sits at a dressing table piled obscenely high with potions, powders and trinkets. We are invited to mock her vanity, but there is a darker edge to the description of "India's glowing gems" in their casket, the way "all Arabia breathes from yonder box" - because they hint at empires plundered, sailors' lives risked, blood and sweat expended just to adorn this spoilt princess. There is a deeper anxiety here about the social cost of a buccaneering age of trade, commerce and newfound consumerism - anxieties echoed in our own culture's disapproval of blingy lifestyles built on maxed-out credit cards, or young women's addiction to cheap T-shirts too likely to have been sewn by children in far-flung sweatshops. (Men buy disposable fashion, too, but attract less attention for it.)

Like the 18th-century Belinda, the contemporary shopaholic is a sin-eater on to whom we can project our guilt over questionable ways of making money. Don't ask how Premier League footballers can possibly deserve £220,000 a week; berate their girlfriends instead - for blowing it all on handbags!

But as the high-rolling years recede, a second wave of anxiety around female consumers is emerging. This time it's over women spending not too much, but too little: the canny housewives, anxious about economic prospects and sensitive to price rises, increasingly blamed for dismal high street sales. Men once again don't really feature. Presumably their minds are on higher things than shopping.

In this analysis, as the Sunday Telegraph columnist Janet Daley argued recently in a column warning that the economy won't grow unless women can be persuaded to shop, "the most significant form of female political power" is deciding when it's safe to spend.

Women's place

But the dangerous thing about this idea is that it can obscure women's role in creating rather than frittering wealth. What you don't hear so often is how western economic growth has been boosted by the shift of women, and especially mothers, into work since the 1970s. By 2009, the American economy was up to 25 per cent bigger than it would have been had millions more women not chosen over the previous four decades to work, according to figures cited by the management consultants McKinsey. That kind of growth isn't just down to women having more money to buy shoes.

Some will have started businesses; some helped the businesses for which they worked to grow; some indirectly drove the growth of new service industries as couples began paying others to do what housewives once did for free: looking after children, cleaning, providing a hot meal at the end of the day (albeit now at Pizza Express). Women's jobs were critical to past growth. Forget that and you can miss how important they are to future growth.

As for shopping our way out of recession, it's probably not wannabe Wags that retailers should be targeting. Those most willing to splash out and treat themselves, according to TNS-BMRB, were old-age pensioners. Let's hope they need lipstick.

Gaby Hinsliff is a former political editor of the Observer