Glossy or matte? Women in the recession

October 21, 2009

Glenda Stone– Glenda Stone is chief executive and founder of Aurora, a recruitment advertising and market intelligence company, and co-chairs the UK Women’s Enterprise Taskforce established by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The opinions expressed are her own.-

A theory once proposed by Estée Lauder Companies chairman, Leonard Lauder, was that in times of economic downfall women purchase more lipstick.

Referred to globally as the “Lipstick Index”, the theory asserts that in times of economic distress women substitute expensive fashion items for less expensive grooming and “feel good” items such as lipstick.

Estée Lauder observed this phenomenon following the Sept. 11, attacks in 2001. It has also been touted by such iconic beauty houses as Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. Even Bobby Brown launched their 10 shades of lipstick range in 1991 right in the middle of a big recession.

So lipstick may be the female morale booster as were the comic Charlie Chaplin films released during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but will it be enough to pull women out of the doldrums when there simply are just not enough jobs to go around?

Reviewing women’s participation in paid employment over the decades, Office for National Statistics findings show that in 1971 the UK employment rate for women was 56 percent compared with 70 percent by the end of 2008.

This compares with a similar decrease in men’s employment rate for the same period, with UK male employment falling from 92 percent to 78 percent. In 2008, more than 12.5 million working age women in the UK were in paid formal employment, with 40 percent working part-time compared to around 11 per cent of working men. The all-time record high for UK employment was in Q3 2007 at 29.1 million.

But what has been happening for professional women throughout the economic downfall and are more women than men being made redundant – and if so why?

Numerous research studies have been published and they differ greatly on their findings. The ONS, in Q1 2009, stated that estimates suggested fewer women than men were being made redundant with the redundancy rate for women in the three months to December 2008 being 6.6 per 1,000 employees, less than half that for men which was 13.6 per 1,000 employees. Yet the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) stated that since the start of 2008 the female redundancy rate increased by 2.3 percentage points almost double the rate of male increase at 1.2 percentage points.

In some parts of the UK such as in the North West region, data shows that the rate of women’s unemployment has increased at almost double the rate of male unemployment since the start of the downturn.

Some areas and reasons why women are being specifically affected by the recession is that women are more likely to work in part-time roles which are significantly reduced during a downturn. Also, if government spending cuts prevail then more women will find their jobs at risk as there are more women than men employed in the public sector.

A further impact is that women are more likely than men to be in lower paid work, and so are less likely to have savings and as such face greater risk of more immediate poverty through unemployment. With the added complexity of childcare responsibilities, women may also find it harder to re-enter the workforce. Some research studies have also cited more pregnant women than childless women being targeted for redundancy.

And then there is always that territorial Darwinism factor – survival of the fittest. Will women compete as actively as men for fewer positions?

The Women’s Enterprise Task Force I co-Chair produced a research report into “Women in the recession” and found, amongst other things, that women’s enterprise is well sustained in a down market due to the low-risk, cost-contained models predominantly used by female business. It will be interesting to see whether women leaving corporate sector through redundancy do actually decide to “go it alone’ and set up shop for themselves … but hopefully not selling lipstick!

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