The claim

“There are more women in work than at any time in our history.”

David Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions, 9 January 2013

The background

Back at the House of Commons for the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the year, Ed Miliband wasted little time taking aim at David Cameron over his record on women.

The prime minister, he said, had promised to “make sexual inequality history”, yet changes to the benefits system were “hitting women three times as hard as men”. Wasn’t it another “broken promise”, Mr Miliband asked?

“There are more women in work than at any time in our history,” was Mr Cameron’s riposte.

“Our pensions reforms are helping women, our public sector pay freeze, which excludes the lowest-paid, is helping women.”

Earlier this week, FactCheck’s own Cathy Newman penned a piece on how few female journalists had been there to ask questions at a mid-term review press conference. Perhaps that’s why Mr Cameron started talking about Ronseal.

Nonetheless, the debate hadn’t fallen on deaf ears, not least at Labour HQ. Mr Miliband replied: “After that answer it’s no wonder he didn’t take any questions from women journalists at his mid-term relaunch.”

FactCheck  just couldn’t help but take the bait.

The analysis

Looking at the figures, Mr Cameron’s broadly right – the number of women in work has been rising pretty consistently over the last 20 years or so.

There were 13.7m women in work from August to October 2012, according to the Office for National Statistics.

A quick glance through the figures, and it’s not actually the highest number – there were 13,715,000 women in work between June to August last year.

But on that scale, 15,000 isn’t a huge distortion. We’re not saying it’s unimportant, but Mr Cameron’s in the right ballpark.

What’s more revealing, though, is the rate of female employment. After all, we’d expect the number of women to be in work to be higher than at other times in our history – there are more women out there to begin with. Nearly 2.5m more over 16, in fact, than there were in March 1992.

But the rate of employment tells us how many women aged 16 to 64 who, generally, can work that actually do. On that scale, we’re not doing better than at any other time in our history.

Employment rates for women continued to rise throughout the 90s and the naughties, reaching a peak of 67.1 per cent in February 2005 and then staying at around that level until around August 2006.

The rate sort of wavered a bit, but managed to hold on to its high until May 2008, after which it began to crash, rather like the economy.

In October to December 2010, the rate of 16 to 64-year-old women in work dipped to a low not seen since the late 1990s – falling to a rate of 65.3 per cent.

At last count, under the coalition government, the rate of women in work has crept back up, to 66.1 in October 2012.

But we’re still only where we were in 2002, comparing pre-recessionary rates.

It’s also worth pointing out that of the 13.7m women aged 16 to 64 employed in August to October 2012, 44 per cent were working part time, a rise of 2.5 per cent compared to the same period the previous year.

And 656,000 of them – 4.8 per cent – had second jobs, while almost seven per cent were in temporary work.

The verdict

For the measure he’s used, Mr Cameron’s right, but it would be worrying if he were not.

With the pool of economically active women widening, it should be a given that “there are more women working than at any time in our history”.

The rate, or percentage, of women working tells us more about sexual equality than an absolute figure, and on that score, Mr Cameron can’t claim to have won any battles.

It is getting better. But at more than 10 whole percentage points below the male rate of employment – 76.5 per cent at last count, even after a heavy hit during the recession – Mr Cameron might take a lesson from women, who’s work, they say, is never done.