Friday, 1 April 2011

David Willetts upsets the sisterhood

David Willetts has got himself into trouble with many of the easily annoyed by claiming that feminism is to blame for the choking-off of social mobility in Britain during the past few decades. Aspirational jobs that might have gone to working-class boys went instead to pushy Hermiones and Henriettas, with the result that a leaden underclass faces an ever grimmer future while a smug, over-educated elite monopolises everything, breeding a new generation of privileged brats who will one day take their place. It's all the Wimmins' Fault.

Naturally, his argument is somewhat more subtle than that. But nuance means nothing when an opportunity to kick a Tory, especially one burdened by a longstanding imputation of intelligence, presents itself. Is Willetts the new Keith Joseph, I wonder? No matter. Let's look at what he actually said - in a briefing to journalists, rather than in a publicly available speech, so the details may not be entirely reliable (though he has, Two Brains that he is, set out his case at greater length in a book).

Asked what was to blame for the lack of social mobility, Mr Willetts said: “The feminist revolution in its first round effects was probably the key factor. Feminism trumped egalitarianism. It is not that I am against feminism, it’s just that is probably the single biggest factor
.... this transformation of opportunities for women ended up magnifying social divides. It is delicate territory because it is not a bad thing that women had these opportunities, but it widened the gap in household incomes because you suddenly had two-earner couples, both of whom were well-educated, compared with often workless households where nobody was educated.

It is indeed "delicate territory", as the comically outraged reaction to his comments makes plain.

Of course Willetts was right. The main beneficiaries of the expansion of higher education have been middle class, and of these the greatest increase in numbers has been among middle class girls. This is because, not so many decades ago, it was still the case that for a nice middle-class girl getting a "proper" education with a career at the end of it was less important than being good marriage material. The main female careers - secretarial work, nursing and even teaching - did not require university-level education, while female barristers, doctors, professors and business executives were not exactly unheard-of but a small enough minority to attract notice as such. The announcement of a female High Court judge used to be front-page news. Today women are starting to predominate in the junior ranks of many professions. Feminists, and others, may find this a cause for celebration (though you don't often see a feminist celebrating, do you?) but what sort of women are they? There are exceptions, but by and large they are the daughters, sisters and wives of the type of men who used to monopolise these jobs. They are, in other words, middle class.

To point this out is not to attack feminism, or to blame women for the predicament of working class men. It does, however, say something about the priorities of some equality campaigners. I've noticed, for example, that discussions of the position of women in the workplace - especially among those who stress the "long way" they still have to go to achieve parity with their male colleagues - tend to focus on the relative under-representation of women in Parliament, in the boardroom or on the High Court bench. There may still not be many female chief constables. But then there aren't that many male chief constables, either. The discussion of pay parity often revolves around the remuneration of a tiny elite of the already prosperous - wealthy women who are badly off only when compared to wealthy men. Men and women struggling on average or below-average salaries have little in common with investment bankers, male or female.

When he says that "feminism trumped egalitarianism" he means that, in Britain, more attention has been paid to the gender gap than to the gap between social classes, and while the one has tended to close, the other has inexorably widened. He suggests that "assortative mating" - the tendency to marry someone like oneself - has added to the chasm. Of course, assortative mating has always taken place; what makes it potentially more divisive today is that partners no longer tend to share merely social background but also employment level. The gap between two households, one containing two high earners and the other containing two low or no-earners, will be larger than that between two household, one containing a single high earner and a non-working wife, and the other containing one low earner and a non-working wife. This process inevitably produces greater economic inequality. So far, so uncontroversial.

Slightly more contentious is the implication that had not educated women taken these opportunities then working class men would have benefited. I don't think this necessarily follows - the underperformance of working-class boys in school has many roots, and reorientation of the economy away from traditional heavy industry would have impinged primarily on men even had feminism never existed. Christina Odone suggests that boys have suffered from being devalued by a feminised educational system and a social discourse that belittles masculinity. But few working class boys read the Guardian, or are directly affected by its opinion pages.

I would put it slightly differently: the economic change that has benefited the middle-classes generally (to use the old Leftist jargon, workers by brain rather than by hand) has led to the creation of more gender-neutral jobs and the elimination of many old gender-specific ones. Educated, well-connected girls were perfectly placed to benefit - as were their brothers and boyfriends. This would have occurred with or without "feminism". Feminism should neither take the credit nor receive the blame - rather, the widespread adoption of feminist-sounding ideology and political rhetoric formed a natural accompaniment to social and economic transformation. It provides a ready explanation for what has occurred, but a false one.

Does feminism trump egalitarianism? Not really. But social solidarity - birds of a feather flocking together - probably trumps both. It's not because they're feminists that middle-class women have tended to crowd out working-class men. They've also crowded out working-class women. Those women - the majority - who did not benefit from the university and workplace revolution have suffered as much as, and probably more than, their men. It's an ironic tribute to the success of feminism.

(George Eaton has attempted to refute Willetts by pointing to Scandanavian countries where greater economic equality and greater equality between the sexes has gone hand in hand. Indeed, there is "a positive correlation between income equality and social mobility" - with the UK performing relatively poorly at both. He blames Thatcherism rather than feminism. (Though wasn't Thatcherism itself a weird but highly successful sort of feminism? I'd say it was, and not simply because The Lady was a lady. Closing down the mines and the old heavy industries did more for the position of working women vis-a-vis men than any number of books by Germaine Greer.)

I don't think Eaton's argument really stacks up. Scandanavian countries have long been less socially stratified than Britain. They have much smaller populations and a very different recent history. It is not the case that feminism has increased social mobility. They were, after all, more equal societies than Britain when most of their women stayed at home. It may be the case in Norway that the advancement of women has not produced a more unequal society - but that does not mean that it could not have had the same effect here. It may well be that in a society that has more equality to begin with the ratchet described by David Willetts would never take hold.)