Educating women – bad for equality?

Is feminism to blame for social inequality and poverty? Do women in employment ‘deprive’ working class males of opportunities? According to British Universities Minister, David Willetts, the answer is yes. In a briefing on social mobility the Minister suggested that feminism was perhaps probably the ‘single biggest factor’ in preventing mobility and causing entrenched inequality.

For readers who might not immediately follow this argument, I could perhaps explain it like this. Well educated people tend to be more mobile and have higher pay. If you have a society in which men receive education and then seek to better themselves, they can avail of whatever opportunities there are out there in the labour market. The opportunities are greatest if their wives stay at home and concern themselves with the household. If however the women are also educated and enter the labour market, then the wealthiest couples will hoover up the opportunities. Wealthy and particularly well-educated men meet and marry similar women, and together they will take the available high status jobs, leaving poorer males to make do with the less interesting and rewarding employment. Social division is perpetuated.

Willetts summed it all up like this:

‘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.’

There is something curiously old-fashioned about all this. I don’t just mean the attitude to women (elsewhere in this he insists he is all in favour of women’s rights), but the apparent belief that the labour market supplies a precisely limited number of jobs unrelated to the economic activity of its members. So for example, it is well established that in general migrants don’t displace indigenous jobs: they enter the labour market and their industry generates more jobs again.

There is also something extraordinarily odd about the idea that we must choose between women’s working opportunities and social equality, and that we cannot have both; that one kind of equality can only be achieved at the expense of another. Apart from the qualms of principle that some of us might have around this, there really isn’t any respectable evidence to back it up.

The Minister has been attacked from all sides for his argument. This has prompted him to produce a further explanation – not a retraction but an elaboration:

‘I am not blaming anyone but I am explaining something in terms of why inequality has widened. I am not trying to reverse the opportunities for women, rather I am drawing attention to the consequences when you are measuring household incomes. I think it is just a statement of truth.’

It is not easy to see where David Willetts wants us to go with this; or more importantly, where he proposes to go with it himself. There is a dangerous hint here of an idea that women’s education is not a good thing. That may not be what he actually believes, but in that case why has he raised this issue at all? In any case, there is abundant evidence that growing the labour pool raises productivity and encourages economic growth.

This seems to be an example of a man who likes exploring where his hypotheses take him. But in his case his conclusions could turn our world upside down and roll back decades of progress in gender policy and rights. The time to stop this kind of thinking is now.

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40 Comments on “Educating women – bad for equality?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Bullshit. From this comment of Willetts you’d think he hasn’t the levers of the tax office in his hands. So if he’s all that worried the one certain way to increase equality would be to remove much of the serfdom of a ridiculous mortgage which forces a requirement for two incomes in the early years with judicious use of the tax code. For heavens sake next he will argue against the Gay Pound.

  2. Al Says:

    A bit of an overreaction there?
    The time to stop this kind of thinking?
    If he was an academic would it be acceptable?


    • Al: over-reaction by me to David Willetts? Or by DW to the issues he identifies?

      • Al Says:

        By yourself to him.
        He presents a thesis.
        It can be proved or disproved by research.


        • That’s interesting, Al. I thought I hadn’t expressed a reaction at all, never mind an over-reaction! I was merely musing on what response he was looking for, or how one might assess his argument. All very restrained!

          • Al Says:

            “But in his case his conclusions could turn our world upside down and roll back decades of progress in gender policy and rights. The time to stop this kind of thinking is now.”

            ???

        • Rachel Says:

          His “thesis” appears to be that the availability of Higher Education to one half of the population as well as the other has not been good for equality in our society. It seems to me that this can be disproved by rational thought.

          • Alice Says:

            Rachel, I agree with you!

            It is fairly obvious to anyone with even a moderate sense of fairness that both men and women have equal rights with respect to being educated and competing in the job market. What does Willetts propose to do: prevent women from being educated in order to redress the balance? Stop women from applying for high status jobs? This, as university diary states, takes us back to the dark ages when women were repressed and ‘their place was in the home’. Absolutely ridiculous!

            If he has a viable plan (which does not include the repression of women) with which to address the ‘problem’ why does he not share it; otherwise why bring up an argument which sounds antiquated and utterly sexist, not to mention poorly thought out and not backed up by any research what so ever?

            I find it extremely worrying that a government minister should hold views which appear to threaten, or even denigrate, women’s basic rights to education, work and equality.

            Why on earth should women have less right to a good job than a ‘working class male’, or any male for that matter? They both have equal opportunity to fight for that job and I fail to see why one contestant should be prevented from attaining it on account of their sex.

            Why are only working class men disadvantaged? Surely the issue would disadvantage working class women as well. Is Willetts merely revealing his fundamental sexism or does the issue revolve more around class than sex?

    • Aidan Rowe Says:

      It’s not an over-reaction to say people shouldn’t think stupid and offensive things.

  3. Conor Says:

    “The time to stop this kind of thinking is now.” THis is a crazy statement. Rebut, refute, or repudiate his arguments but it is simply wrong to silence thoughts once does not like.

    I heard Willets argument some time ago – in The Irish Times of all places. It was put pithily: once the doctor would marry his secretary; now two doctors marry each other.

    Conor


    • Conor, as I’m certain you know I wouldn’t suggest anyone’s ‘thoughts’ should be policed. But Willetts’ statements have the capacity to be turned into policy or even law, so a different kind of scrutiny is required. This isn’t some abstract discussion over a pint. As for rebutting or refuting (‘refudiating’ is, I think, the word Sarah Palin uses), I thought I’d done just that!

    • Jilly Says:

      Actually, the incidence of doctors marrying their secretaries in the ‘old days’ was fairly limited. Instead, they married the daughters of the previous generation of doctors. There was in fact very limited cross-class marriage then as now – the popular image of that occuring belonged more to Mills & Boon than to reality.

  4. Kate Bopp Says:

    Alarming to say the least that a government minister is even thinking along such lines. His profile is higher than *the ordinary Joe* and he should perhaps be more responsible about concepts he scatters out into the public domain. This one in particular is disturbing and has the potential to feed existing predjucices that ambitious, capable women are already grappling with in their professional lives.

  5. Ivonne Appleyard Says:

    I think it is worrying that a government minister expresses such views and especially in terms of future policy and the impact of the next generation of girls.
    Interestingly, other countries seem to see this less of an issue as Germany is actively tyring to push women into higher responsibility positions and the social mobility cap in Germany is much higher than in Britain.

  6. Lee Says:

    There’s a lot of truth in what Willetts is saying. If you enact legislation favouring one group of society the consequence is that other groups are then placed at a disadvantage. In the case of feminism it’s not difficult to work out who benefits and who doesn’t.

    • wendymr Says:

      What legislation are you referring to that ‘favours’ one group over another? The intended effect of anti-discrimination legislation is to ensure that all groups are treated equally, rather than – as previously – treated less fairly because of irrelevant factors such as gender, race etc. It’s still very easy to show that discrimination against women remains, and that women do still have to work harder than men to rise to the top.

      Incidentally, I would love to hear your definition of feminism.

      • Lee Says:

        In the employment field I would give women-only shortlists as one example, different retiring ages for men and women as another and less blatantly, the general feminisation of large areas of society and the working environment whereby traditional male attitudes and working practices are now deemed to be irrelevant…or even unwanted.

        As to my definition of feminism, I think it is supremacist and discriminatory and fails to take into account the natural differences between the genders.

        • Wendymr Says:

          How common are women-only shortlists?

          Different retirement ages is a rather idiotic example as this is a relic of a previous era and is being phased out.

          ‘Feminisation’ of large areas of society? You don’t perhaps mean that women are finally starting to move into areas from where they have traditionally been excluded due to discrimination?

          ‘Traditional male attitudes’? You wouldn’t perhaps mean girlie calendars, sexist jokes, sexual harassment, the attitude that women belong in the home, perhaps?

          I define feminism as the recognition that women and men are equal and deserve the same rights: that women are entitled to equal pay for equal work, and an equal opportunity to prove themselves within the workplace. What’s ‘supremacist’ about that? And what do ‘natural differences’ between the genders have to do with this?

          • Lee Says:

            By stating traditional male attitudes I mean hard work, discipline, self-control, self-sacrifice…more specifically going out to work and supporting a family.

            By ‘feminisation of the workforce’ I am referring to large areas of society where male employees find it very hard to establish themselves; some examples being education, the health services, local government, personnel and the media.

            When I state that feminism is a supremacist philosophy I am referring to the many TV adverts and programmes which ridicule, denigrate and belittle men; additionally many women want equality when it suits them but don’t when it doesn’t – examples I can think of are the differing retirement ages, better health facilities for women and the unequal treatment of the sexes by the courts.

            Finally ‘natural differences’ between the sexes refers to the fact that women get pregnant and men don’t…this obvious has a negative effect on a woman’s career – even if an individual woman herself never becomes pregnant. Women are also physically weaker than men and so there are many jobs that they can’t do because of this, or wouldn’t want to do anyhow.

          • Wendymr Says:

            You are seriously saying that hard work, discipline, self-control and self-sacrifice are not female attributes (they’re not attitudes at all, in fact)? What about women who work all day outside the home and then come home and do all the cooking, housework and what remains of childcare? Or the women who do stay at home, sacrificing their careers and their own ambitions to the needs of their family? I think you’ve just offended every woman in existence here.

            You refer to sections of the labour market which are, certainly, female-dominated. But look at who is in the management positions in those fields? Sure, 90% of nurses are women. 50% of nurse-managers are men. I notice, however, that you say nothing about even larger swathes of the labour market which are overwhelmingly male: transport, engineering, sciences, extraction, upper levels of government locally and nationally, the police… I could go on.

            I’ve already responded to your comment on retirement ages. Sorry, but you need to come up with a better example than that! Feminism as a supremacist ideology… sorry, but I just can’t take you seriously. One female prime minister in the UK in all of history; none so far in Ireland. Yeah, there’s a female supremacy there all right! Sorry, but that’s just beyond ridiculous.

            And, sorry, but the biological fact that a woman can get pregnant does not ‘obviously’ have an effect on a woman’s career. And why should it? Especially not in these days of paternity leave in addition to maternity leave.

            I’m really not at all clear about what it is you want: women to stay out of the labour force because we’re just unfair competition for you, or to stay out because you need to have your home taken care of for you?

          • Alice Says:

            Well argued, wendymr!

    • Mary Says:

      Note that middle-class women and working-class men are only competing directly with each other in a market which assumes that middle-class men’s roles are sacrosanct.

  7. cormac Says:

    It’s quite simple: he sees employment and opportunity as a zero sum game for men and women. No economist in the world would agree with this. QED

    • Jilly Says:

      Well, quite. But also, Willetts appears to be confusing an analysis of class with an analysis of gender. Who knows why (though I suspect that sirens and flashing lights go off at Conservative HQ if anyone mentions class)? And then he goes on to gender the discussion of class; what he appears to be arguing is:
      1) there are a limited number of employment and social opportunities, and this is a law of nature;
      2) the educated middle-classes are hoovering up all of those opportunities;
      3) men (regardless of class) have a right to compete effectively for these opportunities, and therefore;
      4) middle-class women are interlopers in this competition.

      And his nick-name is ‘two brains’?!


      • Yes, I think that sums up his position. Or rather, to do him justice, I’m not sure he has a ‘position’, but he is offering what he suggests is social analysis.

        But the statement that should cause some alarm is his assertion that ‘feminism trumps egalitarianism’. This suggests that gender equality is not a form of equality at all, and that feminism is creating social disadvantage. If you were a politician or civil servant and bought into that analysis, then you can immediately see what the next steps might be in terms of social policy or legislation.

  8. Mary B Says:

    If you saw Willetts on TV last night and the way he was attempting to patronise the (very bright) young woman investigative journalist who was interviewing him, his comments on gender are understandable – though wrong(The programme about the commodification of education was IMO well done and balanced).
    It is correct though that there are employment areas which have become ‘genderised’ – e.g. HRM has become ‘female’ and engineering ‘male’ and in both cases the profession would benefit from learning about the other gender’s approach to the job. Personally I would agree with Baron-Cohen that there ARE gender differences – but the similarities between males and females are much more significant and we should be fighting the same battles!

  9. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Shouldn’t we be looking deeper at widening participation and access for those with backgrounds that may disadvantage them rather than looking for a scapegoat?
    It’s hard not to take these things personally. I didn’t do the traditional route of education, I had to use widening access and I worked hard. It was not by any means handed to me on a plate because I lack a certain member.
    If “ambitious working-class men” can’t get a particular job because a “well-educated woman” got there first, well, for me, tough.
    There are plenty occasions in life where I have been passed over for a less competent male, purely because they had an ability to grow a beard faster than I can.
    If they are that ambitious they would strive for excellence.
    Not every well paid job requires further/higher education for a start, but we have processes in place to allow those with a non-traditional educational background to excel.
    We should really strive for meritocracy. Perhaps the answer lies in the early education of all, to truly encourage those “working-class men” of which he speaks, to realise their goals, rather than to denigrate women in the workplace.

  10. Alasdair Says:

    I have to agree with Al’s first post in the article being an over-reaction. It seems whoever wrote this article has some kind of personal experience and as such has taken it to heart.

    First off I have not read Willets full briefing so my comments are only in response to this article.

    Willets put forth a theory – that is all. As stated, it is up to others to prove or disprove. It is not (so it seems from these small quotes) a personal statement whether he believes it to be good or bad. He states “rather I am drawing attention to the consequences when you are measuring household incomes”.

    As for the author of this article: “I could perhaps explain it like this”. No, you shouldn’t be trying to explain someone else’s words. What if you have misunderstood the argument? You are then trying to lead the reader into your way of thinking. I think this is very naughty! Why not say something like “from willets argument I understand….”

    The way I understand the argument is similar to the following theoretical problem: in say 1000 years, the human race has amassed such size that, space and resources have become massively depleted per head. Science has advanced as such that people live longer – say average 150years old. I then state that this is one of the major factors that there’s not enough food to go round, people living in poverty etc. Am I saying we should stop trying to save elderly people? Of course not, I’m merely stating the reason for the current situation.

    The thought of him being against well educated women is kind of strange given that his wife graduated with distinction from Oxford. I doubt she’d satisfied to live with someone with such views.

    Having said all that, Mary B may be right in that he is sexist and in that case fair enough – he’s a bit of a Muppet. However, this doesn’t come out in what he’s said in THIS article so some of the comments appear to be missing the point.

  11. anna notaro Says:

    Right, I’m only away for a few days and I miss all this thought-provoking comments by the minister!
    Not too long on this blog he was praised for being intellingent and thoughtful, I believe, in any case I would not necessarily agree with your final assessment, Ferdinand that
    ‘This seems to be an example of a man who likes exploring where his hypotheses take him.’ that sounds too generous for this kind of ‘exploration’ which, as some comments have argued already, dangerously confuses gender and social politics…also just like in the case of multiculturalism (recently discussed here)the term feminism is often misrepresented and misused!

  12. Nathan Stirling Says:

    ‘it is well established that in general migrants don’t displace indigenous jobs: they enter the labour market and their industry generates more jobs again’

    Where is this well established?


  13. […] diverse, global benefits of educating women everywhere, have been thoroughly researched and analyzed by the United Nations. In the Global South, simply […]


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