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Woman's work

Fergus Hewison
Fergus Hewison
Politics Show, North East and Cumbria

The number of women in work in the North East is falling at a faster rate than men.

But is this evidence of discrimination at work during the downturn?

Video: Women and work

Woolworths was one of the first casualties of the recession, which has since claimed several other big high street names.

Thousands of jobs were lost and a high proportion of them belonged to women.

And that is a familiar story as unemployment continues to rise in the North.

Going faster

Indeed the latest Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey shows that during the last half of 2008, unemployment among women in the North East increased at a faster rate than among men.

Woolworth store
Woolworth failure cost many women their jobs

That has prompted organisations like the TUC to argue that women will bear the brunt of the recession because they are not only more likely to lose their jobs, but also face more barriers to finding new jobs.

This is, in part, because they usually still have the major share of childcare responsibilities, restricting when and where they can work.

But is there also evidence of discrimination at work during the downturn?

BBC Switchboard
The golden days ...are women now targeted for redundancy?

Are women being targeted because they work part-time or are easier to sack?

Different kind of recession

The figures, of course, do not tell the whole story and are far from conclusive.

The TUC believes this is a different kind of recession to others that have come before it, with many more women in work, with jobs being lost across the whole economy rather than largely in male dominated sectors, and with more households dependent on a woman's wage for survival.

This is all a headache for a Government that has committed itself to greater equality in the workplace with some ministers fearing that Labour's record on equal rights could be tarnished.

Women affected differently

Harriet Harman
Everybody is affected by the recession, but women are affected differently, so we need to focus on that
Harriet Harman MP, Minister for Women

Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader and Women's Minister, recently told the House of Commons: "We are well aware of concerns across the board about job loss during the recession.

"Because women are employed disproportionately in retail and in financial services, we have to look at the effect of the recession specifically on women.

"We have to look at the effect of the recession on women because women are still the main managers of the household budget."

She added: "Everybody is affected by the recession, but women are affected differently, so we need to focus on that."

Cabinet spat

Peter Mandelson
Lord Mandelson: pressure on business?

Ms Harman is also championing plans for enhanced maternity leave and flexible working rights, leading to reports of a cabinet level spat with Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, who fears these kinds of measures could add to the pressure on business during the downturn, and should be shelved.

So the Government is now faced with a dilemma.

How can it help women in the workplace without adding to the problems faced by the businesses that employ those women, making them less inclined to give them a job in the first place?

We talk to two women who lost their jobs about how it has affected their lives and to two women who want to become MPs at the next General Election.

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