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.