Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Lack of Upward Mobility for British Men: The Fault of Feminism

Shakespeare's Sister links to a BBC article about the comments of Cabinet minister David Willets on what is slowing down the upward mobility of poorer men. Willet's answer (which Jennifer linked to in the comments of this blog earlier) is this:
Figures to be published are expected to paint a grim picture of the prospects for advancement for children from the poorest backgrounds dating back to the 1960s. 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.”

Mr Willetts, who set out his views on feminism in his recent book, The Pinch, said that, as a result of better education for women, households now contained two people who were either both financially successful or struggling to get on.
“One of the things that happened over that period was that the entirely admirable transformation of opportunities for women meant that with a lot of the expansion of education in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the first beneficiaries were the daughters of middle-class families who had previously been excluded from educational opportunities,” he said.
“And if you put that with what is called 'assortative mating’ — that well-educated women marry well-educated men — 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.”
Willets is a conservative so he sees the causes of a problem in certain places only. Thus, women, especially middle-class women, are pitted against working-class men. The people omitted from that story are the men who are, in fact, at the top of the societal ladders. Somehow they shouldn't step aside for their less fortunate brethren, but women of that class should, and the real reason, ultimately, is that Willets thinks women can piggy-back up the social ladder on their husbands' shoulders.

Does Willets have a point, the BBC article cleverly asks? Depends on what one means by point, I guess, but Karen Mumford explains why statistics do not support Willets' views:
Karen Mumford, professor of economics at the University of York, says it is "woolly-minded" to assume that the number of job opportunities has remained static.
In the days before feminism, she says, those working-class men who achieved upward social mobility tended to do so by moving through the ranks at their workplace.
But, Prof Mumford adds, the decline in manufacturing - which traditionally was a source of better-paid jobs for a predominantly male workforce - has meant that these opportunities are no longer available.
The number of jobs in manufacturing fell to 2.5 million in 2010, according to figures from business organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). This is equal to just 9% of the total workforce. In 1978 over seven million people were employed in the sector, equal to 28.5% of the workforce.
She points out, additionally, that the rise in the proportion of women attending higher education mirrored a huge increase in the number of places available for both genders. Government figures show an all-time high of 45% of young people going to university in 2008-09 compared with only about one in 20 in the early 1960s.
As a result, Prof Mumford says, there was never a pre-feminist golden age in which large numbers of working-class men attended universities.
However, now the same problem can be attributed to feminism.

On another level it is naturally true that if all women today were excluded from the British labor force and British universities there would be many more jobs and university slots for men. But the same thing would happen if all Tories or all people with blue eyes or all right-handers were excluded: The rest would have more jobs and places at universities.

So why single out one particular group among the many possible ones? Because traditionally women are not viewed as quite justified in having paid work or university education. Excluding women from those doesn't seem as bad as excluding, say, everyone who voted for Labor in the last election. The latter looks like random nastiness, the former somehow not quite wrong.

This links to Willetts' odd juxtaposition of the terms "egalitarianism" and "feminism" in "Feminism trumped egalitarianism." At first I thought he didn't understand that feminism IS about egalitarianism or that he assumed only egalitarianism among men mattered.

Then I realized that he is just trying to pit class against gender here, by blaming the problems of working class men on upper-class women, not on upper-class men or the totality of the upper classes. It's the old idea of offering the previously excluded the crumbs off the dinner table and then watching them fight over those crumbs.

A much more interesting question for Mr. Willetts to answer would be what he thinks about the lack of upward mobility of British women and about the plight of working class women in general.
Added later: Damn how hard it is not to be taken by the conservative framing here. I completely forgot to point out that it's pretty debatable how large an impact feminism had on women's increased labor market participation rates in the 1970s. That had many causes.