The precariat and Mad Men secretaries: temping under the Tory government

Temporary employment is increasing, challenging the binary between employed and unemployed. Temping agencies use the language of flexibility and choice, but are they also reinforcing the regressive gender roles promoted by the Coalition government?

The use of temporary employment in the UK is continuing to increase, according to data released this month by de Poel, the number one procurer of temping labour.  As the recession continues, temping agencies have seen an increase in applications, particularly from graduates, while temping remains a predominantly female area of employment – particularly now that women’s unemployment is at its highest in more than twenty years, according to unemployment figures released earlier this month.  But while temping agencies use the language of choice and flexibility, the disadvantages of temping, and the stereotypes of the ‘female temp’, could be seen as reinforcing regressive attitudes towards women at work: as Mad Men secretaries or ‘office angels’ for male bosses, during a period when the recession and cuts are pushing women out of work, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission reports the notable absence of women from the top tiers of business and public life.   

The concept of the ‘precariat’ has emerged in recent years in response to the increased ‘flexibility’ of labour, to describe both male and female employees who work in insecure and generally low-paid jobs.  Guy Standing has described the emergence of the ‘precariat’ as a result of the logic of late capitalism and globalisation, under which risk has been transferred from the employer to the employee.  Those who work for temporary employment agencies fit into this model, as they lack the security of regular working hours and – until the Agency Worker’s Regulations come into effect this October – also lack the same working rights as permanent employees.  Scholars like Rosenberg and Lapidus (1999) have also found that temporary workers are more at risk of workplace exploitation as employers see them as ‘disposable workers’ and give them the least desirable workplace tasks.

There are also indications that the current trend of higher levels of temping is here to stay.  Temporary employment has generally played a role in recovery from a recession – when employers are still nervous about the economy, temps seem a better choice than the risk of hiring a new full-time employee.  While hiring usually returns to normal after recovery from a recession, temping industry experts in America have noted that, this time, due to the longer recession and slow recovery, high levels of temping may remain for years to come.

Temping has traditionally been a feminine sector, in part due to the perceived flexibility it offers mothers and those returning from maternity leave; as women are more likely to take career breaks than men, temping is more likely to be a stop-gap for women returning to employment.  ‘Office Angels’, one of the premier temporary agencies, seems to use coded signs of femininity, like its bright pink website, while the name ‘office angels’ itself conjures (to me, at least) an image of 1950s secretaries working predominantly for male bosses.   The temping agency ‘Manpower’ might be seen as a counter-point to this argument, but it initially focused on more traditionally ‘male’ employment sectors.  All temping agencies describe themselves as equal opportunities employers, and my own experiences as a temp have been largely positive, but even the names of the companies seem to imply that secretarial and receptionist work is seen as female, while more ‘powerful’ (‘Manpower’) work is seen as male. Anecdotes from friends who have worked as temps seem to indicate that it’s much easier for women to get a receptionist or secretarial temping role (and thus more likely to find at least temporary work) so the gender difference seems to cut both ways. 

Pre-existing gendered notions in temporary employment could now be intersecting with the ways in which the recession – and the Coalition cuts – are affecting women in different ways to men.   TUC analysis in February of this year showed that, while young men were initially most affected by the economic downturn, unemployment rates among women have risen much faster in the last two years.  Young women are particularly vulnerable: in April, unemployment among women aged 18-24 was at 16%, compared with just over 3% for women over 50.  The Fawcett Society and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have both noted that women are bearing the brunt of government cuts, both due to cuts in benefits and services and because one third of women work in the public sector.  As more women lose their permanent jobs, the number of women temping increases.

But do women necessarily lose out when they turn to temporary employment?  A 2004 study in New Zealand that interviewed 45 women temporary workers  found most of the women actively chose temping over permanent employment, were aware of the risks of exploitative or manipulative workplace practices, and appreciated the flexibility of temping work, such as the knowledge that you can easily leave the current position.  The study concluded that the temporary workers were “demonstrating efforts to reposition the role of paid work in their lives”, and expressing an active dissent to traditional binaries of employment and unemployment.    David Cameron’s praise for ‘flexible labour’ posits the same thesis: that, rather than being ‘precarious’, temporary work also gives the employee more choice over their working patterns.  Once the Agency Worker’s Regulations come into force on October 1st, after which temporary workers will be entitled to the same rights as permanent employees after twelve weeks in the role or assignment, it could be argued that temping will no longer have its former disadvantages (fewer entitlements to sick leave and other rights granted to permanent employees) while still providing the advantage of flexibility for both employee and employer.

Others, however, are not convinced by this language of choice.  The Anti Cuts Space that opened in Bedford Square earlier this year to resist the Coalition’s cuts to public services argues that precarity is a feminist issue, as the world of agency work is gendered and “temping agencies co-opt the language of women’s strength and empowerment in order to enrol them in positions of insecurity: temporary work is ‘flexible’…Yet this freedom is freedom from sick pay, maternity leave, regular hours or guaranteed wages.”

There is also a cultural element to this trend: nostalgia sells during a recession, from ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ to bland Cath Kidston tastefulness, and in such a climate the encouragement to be a compliant 1950s ‘office angel’ mixes supposedly tongue-in-cheek appreciation of retro aesthetics with the real contemporary fact that women are faring worse economically under the Coalition.  The popularity of the 1960s-set US television show Mad Men had a direct impact on high street fashions last year, inspired by the now seemingly glamorous period-piece outfits of the female secretaries and wives on the programme.  ‘Mad Men chic’ seems a problematic and gendered aspect of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ nostalgia aesthetics that have dominated throughout the recession: Mad Men itself has often been hailed as a feminist show, for its exploration of how the women in the company actively navigated the constraints of their roles, but it’s dangerous to delude ourselves that we are appreciating its aesthetics from the safe distance of a more enlightened world: after all, the British woman who made most newspaper headlines this year – Kate Middleton – did so because, well, she got married.

The increase of precarious temporary work for young women in this climate thus seems to fit into the larger picture of the UK under the Coalition government, and their ideas of how women should best play a role in the ‘Big Society’.  A report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission published this month found “more than 5,400 women missing from Britain’s 26,000 most powerful posts” in media, business, judiciary, and the arts, and that while women are graduating from university in greater numbers and achieving better degree results than men, at the current rate of change it will still take 70 years to reach an equal number of men and women directors of FTSE 100 companies, and women still frequently hit a wall in the level below senior management.  As women continue to act as shock-absorbers for the recession and the government cuts, it is hard to imagine this picture changing any time soon.

Temporary employment may provide advantages such as flexibility, but temping’s lack of security and low pay means it offers ‘freedom’ predominantly to employers not employees.   The Conservative language of choice seems to again be papering over the reality of the emergence of the ‘precariat’, just as ‘Mad Men chic’ papered over the reality of contemporary gender inequalities.

About the author

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie