A curious observation on unemployment trends in Singapore
Recently a friend highlighted to me an article in Foreign Policy journal which pointed out that the current global downturn has largely affected men as traditionally male-dominated key employment in sectors such as housing construction and manufacturing fell precipitously, whilst the more female inclined services industry contracted less sharply. The article is worth reading for a global and American perspective on this issue. Investopedia even featured a neologism which captures this idea here.
The thought occurred to me to check if Singapore experienced a similar trend in the current downturn. I consulted the latest report published by MOM here and discovered something surprising. It turns out that for Singapore at least, the unemployment share hasn’t fallen disproportionately on men. Just the exact opposite. The unemployment rate is actually greater for females compared to males. Not only that. It turn out that for a ten-year period from 1998 to 2008, there was a gradual trend of reversal of greater unemployment among males in 1998 (due to the regional Asian financial crisis then) to the situation as it exists today. This table on page 29 illustrates the trend:
As you can see, the unemployment rate (in 2008) amongst females is higher than that of males by 3.5 to 3.0 percent, a reversal of the international trend we observe today. Contrast this with the unemployment data of the earlier years of this decade, when a greater percentage of men were unemployed compared to women. Of course this doesn’t mean we have more females unemployed than males, since the labour force participation rate for males is still higher than for females since breadwinners in Singapore are still dominated by males. To demonstrate this, the data on the previous page highlights that the number of unemployed persons is still higher for males compared to females. However, the unemployment gap in absolute terms, as can be seen below appears to have narrowed significantly over the decade.A 1998 unemployment gender disparity of 11.8k has decreased, though it did vary somewhat throughout the years, to about 4.3k for 2008. Such a large decrease in the unemployed gender disparity has occurred despite the fact that Singapore’s overall population expanded greatly over the same ten year period. In short, from both tables one may conclude that women have been shouldering an increasing share of the unemployment burden over the ten years.
As mentioned above, a possible reason would be an increasing share of women looking for work, resulting in a higher unemployment rate for females. That is likely a contributing factor. Indeed the same report showed that the labour participation rate for females has increased from 49.4% in 1998 to 55.6% in 2008, whereas that of men has stayed roughly the same at 76.1% (2008) compared to 77.4% (1998). For some reason data isn’t provided for the intervening years.
But given that the fall in output is due largely to exports and hence manufacturing, which we expect males to dominate hasn’t mitigated the fact that more females are looking for work, perhaps the latter effect dominates the former. However, as my friend likes to remark, only a regression analysis can rule all other factors out. I can’t think of any other reason why unemployment should be higher for females compared to males. Anyone out there would like to offer their views?