Women and the Labour Market

Date Posted: Friday 9th February 2024

Briefing I: Introduction and Headline Measures

IntersectionalityLabour MarketPaid and unpaid workWomen and Employment

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) releases regular updates on the UK labour market[2]. This includes key headline measures such as employment, unemployment, and economic inactivity[i]. Noting changes in the figures themselves is straightforward – rates go up or down – but the causal factors behind them are more complex.

While headline measures are useful for gaining a snapshot of the current context and how things change over time, they also mask inequalities based on characteristics such as , ethnicity, age and disability. To gain insight into why any changes are taking place, it is important to understand how labour market participation varies between different groups, and why any changes may be occurring.

This briefing – the first of a series – provides an overview of headline measures: employment, unemployment and economic inactivity through a gender lens.


Employment and Unemployment

  • Men are more likely to be in paid work than women. ONS data for September to November 2023 show the employment rate in the UK is 75%. While the gender employment gap has been narrowing, the rate for women (72.1%) is still lower than it is for men (78%).
  • Much of the recent increase in employment rates is made up of part time or self-employed workers who are far more likely to be in poverty than full-time employees.
  • 71% of part-time workers are women, and


  • The employment gap is widest between the ages of 35 – 49 when 88.9% of men are employed versus 80.9% of women (a gap of 8 percentage points).
  • This can be at least partially attributed to the fact that this age group is significantly more likely to have dependent children.

Mothers of dependent children

  • In recent years, the employment rate has been higher for women with dependent children than those without (77.2% versus 68.9%), whereas the reverse was true prior to 2010

Lone parents

  • Around 67.1% of lone mothers are in employment versus 80.1% of lone fathers.
  • Ethnicity
  • There is a persistent ethnicity employment gap: In 2022, 77% of white people were employed versus 69% from all other ethnic groups combined.
  • The employment rate was higher for women (71%) than men (67%) in the mixed ethnic group – in all other ethnic groups, the rate was higher for men than women.


  • The disability employment rate has yet to return to its pre-pandemic level, sitting currently at 53.6%. This gives an employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people of around 28.9%.

Economic Inactivity

  • 25.1% of women are economically inactive compared to 18.5% of men.
  • The most common cause of economic inactivity is long term sickness. 30.4% of economically inactive people of working age gave long term sickness as the cause.
  • 8 million people are now out of the workforce due to long term sickness.
  • Women are more likely to be economically inactive because of long term sickness than men are. 1.5 million women are out of the workforce due to long term sickness, over 200,000 more women than men.

Economic Inactivity reasons – looking after family and home

  • 7% of working age women between the age of 16 and 64 are economically inactive due to looking after their family or home, compared to 7.1% of men.
  • Among 25 to 49 year old (when people are most likely to have dependent children), 54.1% of women and just 11.9% of men were economically inactive because they were looking after their home or family
  • Economic Inactivity and ethnicity
  • 21% of white people were economically inactive in 2022, compared with 26% of people from all other ethnic groups combined.
  • The gap between men and women was biggest in the combined Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic group, where 48% of women and 19% of men were economically inactive – the gap was smallest in the mixed ethnic group, where 25% of women and 28% of men were economically inactive.

Economic Inactivity and disability

  • There is a stark disability gap in rates of economic inactivity with 44.6% of people classed as disabled reporting that they are economically inactive[1] versus 21.9% of the general population.
  • With around 30% of working age adults out of the workforce due to long term sickness, this explains much of the percentage point gap between disabled and non-disabled workers.

[1] Gov.uk (Jan 2023) Employment of disabled people 2022

[2] Office for National Statistics (Jan 2024) Labour market overview: UK statistical bulletins 

[i] Due to recent sampling problems with its Labour Force Survey, the ONS advises caution when interpreting short-term changes in headline rates. It recommends using them as part of their suite of labour market indicators alongside Workforce Jobs, claimant count data and Pay As You Earn Real Time Information (PAYE RTI) estimates. The key purpose of this briefing is to analyse longer term trends and mark key differences between men and women, but it should be noted that some uncertainty exists regarding the accuracy of exact figures.