In the recently published Forbes magazine (no I don’t’ normally read it) there was featured the publication of “Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution.” by S.A. Hewitt. It trumpeted the rise in the number of women attending and graduating university in a number of developing countries. (http://blogs.forbes.com/sylviaannhewlett/)
While for those individual women who are now attending university in the cited countries it is clearly an achievement. But I have serious doubts whether this will have any positive impact on women as a whole, and may well an overall negative impact if the patterns of social development in those countries mimics that of UK.
In the UK we consider that we are a broadly egalitarian society where men and women have equal opportunities, but we recognise that women still face apparent barriers to entry into certain areas of employment. What we do not examine in any depth is the perception of opportunity and the realities of choice.
Feminism has posited the notion that women by right should have the right to choose from a range of lifestyle and career options ranging from pursuit of a professional career to being a stay at home parent, and any permutation in between. Feminists have successfully politicked for regulatory frameworks and the provision of public services to provide the exercise of choice. The Feminist paradigm also promoted the concept that women could revise their lifestyle decisions at will, and expect society to facilitate this.
But for men such range of choice does not exist, and I would argue that the entire feminist paradigm is based upon men not seeking to exercise choice. Broadly for men there is but one choice, work or unemployment. As we can see reinforced by endless advertising and other media activity, men with poor earning potential are excluded from enjoying the opportunity of family and relationships with women. Comparing and contrasting advertisements for proprietary healthcare products highlights this, where positive health for women leads to exploration of potential, empowerment, socialisation etc. But for in the case of marketing to men it is primarily focussed on either functionality (i.e end of pain) or the maintenance of economic status. There is no offer of quality of life improvement or empowerment for men through health.
A decade or so ago, UK media and social commentators asserted that “Men Are In Crisis”, and there were a vast number of articles written about this. At the heart of this was the concern that boys are not doing as well in school and thus not securing such good jobs. In the conferences that followed it was women who composed the bulk of the audiences. Rather than it appearing to be a crisis for men, it appeared and was a crisis for women.
The crisis for women is as follows. If boys and men are not motivated to apply themselves to study and secure good jobs, then their earnings will be less and the likelihood of long term unemployment greater. The consequences of this is that men will not have surplus income to be able to support women’s choices and women’s reliance on the public sector to provide services and employment.
In the preceding decade there are been many interventions to assist women into employment and to promote girls / women’s interests. There developed, funded by the public sector, an entire industry in providing women with a variety of courses / workshops to empower women. Public and private sector funding set up training programmes for “Women Returners” in potentially medium to high skill, and traditionally male dominated, sectors. But by the late 1990’s it was clear that participation for a large number of women had been determined by their desire to defer entering the workforce, rather than an interest in entering those fields.
With the rise of Feminism since the late 1960’s, in parallel there has also been a massive change in men’s real earnings. Whereas in 1970 it took approximately 36% of an average man’s wage to provide accommodation for his family, by the 2005 this had risen to 70%+. In effect men’s purchasing power in relation to housing has fallen to the level of the average woman in full time employment in 1970. Although women’s notional pay in relation to men had risen during this period, their purchasing power had actually fallen slightly. Had it not been for the massive supply of very cheap food and clothing during this period, the entire economic model would have collapsed. Thus the lower down you were as either a man or woman in society the less choice you had regarding your lifestyle.
In the bottom end of the working class, women had always had to seek paid employment to augment the family income. It was in the skilled working class and in the middle classes where women did not generally work once they were married, and many never took paid employment at any point in their lives. The Women’s Movement of the 19th century had not forgotten the lessons of the 1840’s Mines Act which excluded women and children from the workplace. Despite predictions of economic catastrophe for those mining communities, it was found that the standard of living improved as it created a labour shortage, and drove up wages. This in turn compelled mine owners to invest in machinery to improve efficiency, and society to start establishing primary schools to cater for the now unemployed children. Thus the Women’s Movement and the Trades Unions were in agreement that married women should be excluded from the workplace and actively sought to promote this.
Post-war Feminism demanded initially that women should have an equal opportunity to access employment and progressed to promoting the idea that women, even with dependents, should be in employment. Paid employment for women was promoted as fulfilling, and repeated surveys indicate that women do value the social aspects of work.
As women entered the workforce in large numbers, they demanded that their incomes were taken into consideration by the banks and building societies when applying for mortgages. In theory, women’s wages should have contribute to family wealth and thus choice. But in practice the housing market simply responded with price escalations driven by the scarcity of housing and the available money.
For successful professional women, these changes in the socio-economic balance had little impact, for those women in the lower end of society it brought little if any benefit. As men and women struggled to maintain family units, it became often economically beneficial to seek separation and divorce with the public sector funding their decision and protecting them from economic catastrophe. Divorces became characterised by battles over custody as the bulk of community property and access to welfare followed the children. As society became more and more consumerist, men with their declining purchasing power became increasingly marginalised and the object of opprobrium. Despite society being still dependent upon men conforming to traditional patterns and seeking life time employment, men as a group became a target for an endless stream of Feminist condemnation. Feminist pundits progressed to asking “what is the purpose of men and have they any future meaningful role in society?”
Even where men challenged some aspects of this, feminist political influence engineered functional inequality. Thus with the ready availability of DNA testing men could for the first time definitively challenge paternity claims. The UK parliament in a late night sitting passed legislation that denied men the right to seek to establish their paternity of a child without the mother’s or a court’s permission. Further the Family Courts ruled that a “named father” could not, despite not being the biological father, abdicate his responsibility for any child born within the marriage if it was not in the child’s interest.
Feminists had achieved this by becoming part of the establishment and being able to assert overwhelming political influence. At the end of the 1990’s the Royal College of Nursing passed a resolution calling upon the newly elected Labour government to align funding on clinical priorities. The RCN claimed that the allocation of funding was politically driven, with lower clinical priority women’s treatments being promoted at the expense of men. The minister responded that if men wanted better health they could either change their lifestyles or purchase health services from the private sector, and that the government was not willing to re-assign funding. At the time less than 12% of NHS funds were spent on men.
The above example highlights the degree to which feminists had shifted from seeking equality, to securing advantage. In doing so they made a mockery of the notion that public services were based upon the concept of being needs based.
Boys and young men could readily look at the world around them and could only wonder what motivation was there to engage in society, if society showed such scant interest in them. The further down the economic scale they were, the opportunities to participate in society seemed to be. They were assailed with profoundly negative statements in the media. They witnessed their father’s and other men being daily marginalised within the family and society at large.
For the women around them, mothers, teachers and girlfriends, this was also a bewildering situation. These working class men could not longer provide the security and stability that the pre-1980’s men, their fathers, had delivered, and most of all the choices that Feminism promised. While education and egalitarianism in the workplace afforded women the opportunity to secure paid employment and develop careers, the loss of men’s earning power meant that they lost the choice to be “stay at home” mothers to bring up their children as their mothers has done. Those that did seek to combine home and work, had to rely on expensive child-care that often consumed almost all their earnings, and their husbands worked longer and longer hours.
When the European Working Time Regulations was first mooted it immediately became a major political issue in UK as so many people, mainly men, worked far in excess of the recommended 48 hours. Industry had also come to depend on this long hours culture and had built its business model around it. Towards the end of Tony Blair’s term in office, he proudly stated that there were more people in UK in employment than at any time in Britain’s history. He omitted to mention that despite all this work being undertaken and wages earned, the gulf between the rich and poor had widened to reverse the achievements of the 20th century.
Proudly announcing that, in one country or another, increasing numbers of women are present in tertiary education is in itself meaningless. These women are an elite who are unlikely to share in the experiences of women in the bottom half of society. As an elite they will join the establishment, and like all members of establishments seek to preserve and extend their advantages. Their access to political and economic power will enable them to shape society in accordance with their wishes.
In the United Kingdom, the battle is no longer about gender but about class, and class unity. While in popular expression husbands and wives became referred to as “partners” as though co-join in some union. Yet Feminism dealt in polarities, and the division of men and women. The Feminist paradigm posited men and women in eternal battle against each other. The division in the working class that Feminism has sown has led the poorest and weakest in society into catastrophe. To reverse this will require massive structural and attitudinal change in society, and requires the elites to relinquish much of their power and wealth.