The Way We Talk About 'Economically Inactive' Women Is All Wrong

03/06/2016 19:08 | Updated 03 June 2016

Six months ago, Young Women's Trust were lucky enough to secure funding from Barrow Cadbury Trust for an exciting research project. Over 2016 and 2017 we will be working with leading academic Sue Maguire to look into the issue of 'economic inactivity' among young women aged 16-24. In the first quarter of this year there were 182,000 economically inactive men in that age group, but the majority - 303,000 - were women.

National employment statistics divide us all up into being economically active or inactive. Right now, I have a paid job at the Young Women's Trust and I am therefore economically active. (If I were in formal education or training, the same definition would apply). Likewise, when I was unemployed for a couple of months and claimed Job Seekers' Allowance (JSA), I counted as economically active because the government, through my contact with the Jobcentre, knew I was actively seeking work. This would also have applied to me if I was claiming another benefit where I have to be seeking work to claim it - like the Employment and Support Allowance, in the Work Related Activity Group.

If someone is economically inactive it means they're not in employment, education or training. They have not been actively seeking work in the last four weeks and they are not able to start work in the next two weeks. Both men and women can be economically inactive, obviously, but here I'm going to talk about women.

I have a few gripes with the phrase 'economic inactivity'. The first is that it isn't exciting. It sounds formal and difficult. If I weren't already interested in women having fair chances in the job market, I would switch off when I saw it.

What's more, economic inactivity is defined by 'nots'. Not in education or training. Not in employment. Not seeking work. The label doesn't tell you anything about who these women are. And we are all more than the money we make or the qualifications we earn. The label 'economically inactive' makes it sound like these women are sitting around doing nothing; like they are at the bottom of an upside-down pyramid of 'worthy' activity - working, learning, at least looking for work - because they aren't contributing.

This isn't fair or accurate. At the end of 2015 - between October and December - among women aged 16-24 who hadn't looked for work in the last 4 weeks, when asked why, 61% said they were looking after home and family. 18% were long term sick or disabled. 5% were temporarily sick. A small amount were waiting for the outcomes of work, didn't think there was work available for them, or hadn't started looking yet. 11% said there was another, unspecified reason.

Let's focus first on the majority looking after home and family. I don't know if you've done some hoovering or tried to feed a toddler recently, but they are pretty tiring activities. And they have an economic impact. Caring and cleaning need to be done so that we have healthy environments and people to work in them, to produce goods and services. The Office for National Statistics valued unpaid work in UK homes at £1.019 trillion in 2014. That's £38,162 per UK household.

Over the last six months I have used the phrases 'economic inactivity' and 'economically inactive' a lot, so much so that I have abbreviated them to EI. My notebooks and lists are scattered with those initials, and they don't mean much to anyone else. In the policy world we do this all the time - we create shorthand for organisations or people or complicated issues so that we can talk about them quickly. But it also means that we don't reflect on how those words come across to other people or what they really mean.

I appreciate that 'economic inactivity' is a useful catch all. I also appreciate that national statisticians need to divide us all up to measure patterns in society and behaviour. But the very idea of economic activity vs inactivity is narrow and old fashioned. It's also sexist. Among 16-24 year olds, women make up 2/3 of the economically inactive population, and for 61% it's because they're doing the unpaid work that has been allocated to women for centuries - cleaning, cooking and caring. How these women are defined by the state in 2016 has its roots in outdated beliefs about what constitutes work and what doesn't.

Young Women's Trust have another year and a half left to investigate who is economically inactive, why and what government and services should do to support them. Here's my first recommendation: if getting young people into paid work is important to the government, maybe they should introduce more precise and less stigmatising language, so we can better understand what these young women need and how to give it to them.