Has feminism blocked social mobility for men?
- 6 April 2011
- From the section Magazine
Feminism provided an obstacle to social mobility for working-class men, Cabinet minister David Willetts has controversially argued. But is he right?
They were meant to welcome a new era of fairness and opportunity for all. Instead, a minister's remarks have prompted debate over the effect of women's entry into higher education and the professions.
In a briefing to journalists ahead of the government's social mobility strategy, David Willetts, the universities minister, appeared to suggest that feminism had made it harder for working-class men to get ahead in life.
Asked what was to blame for a lack of social mobility, the Daily Telegraph quoted him saying: "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."
His remarks sparked a wave of criticism, and Mr Willetts made it clear that he supported the move of women into the workplace and higher education. But to some the notion that more jobs for females equals fewer opportunities for males will be a convincing one.
Certainly, there is no question that the number of female workers in the UK has increased significantly over the past four decades.
Labour Force Survey estimates suggest that the employment rate for women aged 16 to 59 rose from 56% in 1971 to 73% in 2004.
Whereas in 1971 there were nine million women over the age of 16 in work, by 2004 that figure stood at 13 million.
At the same time, social mobility for men appears to have fallen back over the same period.
According to the government's own social mobility strategy, the proportion of males born in 1958, with parents who were in the bottom fifth of earners, moving upwards was 70%. For those born in 1970, the figure was 62%.
In 2008-09, 51% of young women entered higher education, according to figures released earlier this year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, compared with 40% of young men.
It was the first time more than half of women went on to higher education - 20 years previously, only about one in five young women went into higher education and a decade prior to that it was about one in 10.
It is figures like these that may have led Mr Willetts to conclude that greater opportunities for women have resulted in fewer for men.
Rod Liddle, the son of a train driver who has risen to become a prominent journalist, says he does not like the manner in which the minister made his point. And Liddle insists the move of women into the workplace was just and correct.
But he says such statistics demonstrate that the arrival of middle-class women in large numbers into the universities and professions has restricted the prospects for men with working-class backgrounds.
"The move of women into the workplace is absolutely right - it should be guaranteed," he says.
"But what Willetts said in down-the-line, factual terms is right. It annoys me when the left refuse to accept that it's harder for men or that the process has had an effect on the family. That doesn't mean it was wrong."
Of course, the number of job opportunities on offer and the nature of the labour market did not stand still as women began to make up a greater proportion of the labour force.
As a result, many academics regard such an interpretation of the data as simplistic.
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.
"It was very rare then and it's very rare now," she says. "They are not competing. The problem isn't feminism.
"What's happened is that those middle-income working class jobs with which a man used to be able to keep a family have disappeared, while the number of lower-skill service sector jobs, which women have always tended to do, has expanded."
She acknowledges that the number of better-paid "problem-solving" occupations at the top of the income scale which require a university education have increased, but that this has benefited male and female workers alike.
Moreover, feminists would point to the fact that men in the UK took home 10% more pay than their female colleagues in 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Kate Saunders, feminist writer and novelist, says the idea that greater female participation in the workforce is to blame for a decline in male social mobility ignores the large numbers of women working in badly paid service sector jobs that many men don't want.
"So many things have changed, not just the number of women in the workplace," she says.
"Years ago many working-class men used to work in the factory at the bottom of their street, it just doesn't happen like that anymore and that's not the fault of women. They aren't to blame for things like the decline of the manufacturing industry in this country."
But as long as there is a debate over social mobility, there will also be debate about the repercussions of feminism.