Bringing home the bacon

// 29 September 2008

Shadow education secretary David Willetts is worried. He’s worried about the make-up of people attending university, specifically. Or, to get even more specific, he is worried that too many women are going to university, and there won’t be enough university educated men to go around. Women will be left on the scrapheap; the family* will collapse; disaster will ensue.

*Note: Only David Willetts-approved families are at risk! If your family doesn’t involve one man, one woman, in a married state with kids, with him earning more than her, then you’re not of exactly the… well… type that the Conservative Party wants to protect. Sorry!

We know Willetts, of course, from his classist and sexist proposal for apprenticeships aimed solely at working class men, in order to make them more “marriagable”.

‘For the first time, in a historic experiment in our society, we have more women than men emerging from university. The majority of young people not in education, employment or training are men.

Interesting that for centuries women were almost or totally unable to access this kind of education; that the pendulum in this one narrow area has swung towards some, largely economically and socially privileged, women’s success, and there’s no end of panic about it.

And interesting that the Conservative party’s answer is to bemoan and use scare tactics.

‘Of course the world is changing, and it’s fantastic it is. But the fact is that even if men want to be the breadwinner, they are no longer being given the opportunity of being the breadwinner.

‘They are no longer given the opportunity to bring home the bacon, and the evidence is that that is bad for families.’

The world is changing; that’s fantastic; but society needs to stay in some mythical 1950s land where men “bring home the bacon”?

David, I’m confused – are you saying that men need to be able to earn more than women? That should be part of government policy, should it? What’s this evidence again? Actually, what’s your policy again?!

This at a time when in the real world, women working full time earn on average about 17% less than men – and ethnic minority women earn 20% less. But the priority is for men to be able to be the “breadwinners” if they want? (Again, no mention of what the women in their lives might want!)

The Daily Mail story continues with this little factoid:

Thirty years ago, nine out of ten women were married before they were 30. Now, only two-thirds are wed by that age.

Oh noes! Unmarried women roaming the land? Crisis!

Now there’s this statistic:

Mr Willetts said that middle-class women were the main beneficiaries of the recent expansion in the availability of university places. Some 45 per cent of young women are now going on to higher education.

But at the same time, the proportion of young men going to university has dropped to just 35 per cent. Many others, he said, are unable to find the apprenticeships which would give them a better chance of a stable income in later life.

I fully agree with Mr Willetts’ excellent class analysis – why is it mainly middle class women benefitting? How will working class women and men benefit from easier access to university education through a Willetts education policy again?

David Willetts, incidentally, went to a public boys’ school that currently charges £8,550 a year in school fees, and then to Christ Church, Oxford, we learn from Wikipedia. But middle class boys going to prestigious university? That’s great! More breadwinners to marry those young, educated women – but not too educated – we wouldn’t want them to earn more than their prospective partners from the appropriate class background, would we?

‘Of course the family is an emotional and personal thing, but it is also an economic institution and what we are describing is the collapse of the economic circumstances that hold families together.

‘The man who can’t go out and command a decent wage is not going to be able to hold a family together.’

So the only possible way for a heterosexual relationship to succeed is if the man gets to earn a “decent wage”. Because men are not able to function, if their female partner is the “breadwinner”? Oh fragile male ego.

Labour MP Emily Thornberry said: ‘The Conservatives seem to think there is something worrying in more women going to university.

‘Is David Willetts saying that someone as clever, funny and creative as Bridget Jones should not have gone to university?

‘Perhaps that is why the Conservatives have refused to support Labour’s aim that 50 per cent of young people attend higher education.

Over 50 per cent of young people from every social class aspire to go to higher education. Why do the Conservatives like David Willetts continue to want to deny people that opportunity?

Via Fart Party

Image sourced from MontanaRaven, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Michelle // Posted 29 September 2008 at 9:32 pm

While I appreciate the tone and commentary of the article here, there is a serious point to be made. And I know I risk the potential wrath of fellow feminist commenters, but I’ll go ahead and try anyway. There is a critical shortage of Obstetricians in the US now, because so many more females enter the trade than males, and then a large proportion do not work full time following the birth of their children. I can imagine many other fields in which this is the case, although this is the one I happen to have seen numbers for, and had discussions with male colleagues about the difficulties of making up the on-call schedule. I think perhaps the serious thinking should be on the part of the women planning careers, if they do have family aspirations perhaps that should factor into their career choices. Especially in courses that are very expensive to run, like medicine, is it ethically right at the population level to devote scarce resources of say medical training to more women than men when on average they work fewer hours in the profession by far?

Lauren O // Posted 29 September 2008 at 9:41 pm

This kind of thing doesn’t even have the power to make me mad anymore; it just makes me laugh.

“Almost all women used to get married early; now only most of them do! Travesty!”

“Women are coming closer to getting their fair share of wages and employment! We must stop the madness!”

Sorry, Mr. Willetts, dear. It’s happening, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Legible Susan // Posted 29 September 2008 at 10:08 pm

“Why is it mainly middle class women benefitting?” I can give you at least part of a reason.

I grew up working class, but I went to university. I could do that because I got a full grant: I started (in 1975) with no savings, and graduated with £300 in the bank. If I tried to do that now, I’d come out thousands of pounds in debt. I belong to the one generation that could get an education on merit (as defined by the exam system, but that’s another story), without having to live on beans-on-toast or spend our evenings/weekends/holidays working for peanuts.

Without actually looking it up, I assume it was Thatcher that put a stop of that. D’you think Mr. Willetts is a fan of hers?

Mary Tracy9 // Posted 29 September 2008 at 10:26 pm

The evidence! The EVIDENCE!!! Behold the all mighty evidence!!!

Ehm, where is that evidence again? The one that supports the claim that men not being the breadwinners is “bad for families”?

Oh, that’s right. It doesn’t exist!

You can always count on the Conservatives to come up with imaginary moral crisis.

Though we should see the positive side of this. Feminism might not have succeeded in preventing sexism, but now at least they have to pretend that it’s “fantastic”.

Amy // Posted 30 September 2008 at 12:56 am

LOL. As a female electrical apprentice who went to Uni and got a degree, David Willetts must *really* hate me :D

Shea // Posted 30 September 2008 at 1:40 am

“if they do have family aspirations perhaps that should factor into their career choices.” What the way men do?

Actually the main shortage is in A & E and has nothing to do with “females entering the trade” but the culture of long hours and anti-social on call arrangements in some specialties. But the solution to this is a cultural change that invites both parents to take responsibility for raising their children rather than expecting the woman to do it all.

“is it ethically right at the population level to devote scarce resources of say medical training to more women than men when on average they work fewer hours in the profession by far?”

Do you have evidence they work fewer hours? Most of the G.Ps I know, male and female, only work four days a week whether they have children or not. Hows that for a utilization of resources?

There’s an equal argument that women live longer, so can retire later and regain any time spent balancing childrearing/ working.

tom hulley // Posted 30 September 2008 at 8:17 am

A man told me recently that he could not always attend meetings because they both worked half time, in paid employment and in their unpaid childcare, housework etc. Given the nature of their contractual and flexible work, fixed time off was difficult at present. A priority was having time together before following other interests. (OK a man would boast this while a woman just take it as given)

That’s what I call a ‘proper’ family.

Of course, women and men have contributed what they can in many families for hundreds of years. Sometimes women have done all the paid work, more often they have done the unpaid work. Real families pool their resources, do their best and still try to realise their aspirations in restrictive and unhelpful world.

If all University places went to women and all men did childcare and housework the family would not collapse.

Across the world, I think women are more often the main breadwinners anyway so Willetts takes a very narrow view both class and culturally biased.

The issue is not who gets the bread but how much bread is offered. Supporting families on minimum wages is no fun for women or for men.

Education? A bit of luxury for many people!

Virginia // Posted 30 September 2008 at 8:59 am

The way I read it sounds a little more terrifying: men can no longer force women to get and stay married to them because they have financial independence, and *shocks and horrors* men may need women more than women need men! How appalling this must seem to poor David Willetts, for men to be demeaned in their dependence and women to have the *choice* to toss them aside if their men don’t perform. Sounds just like being a 50s housewife.

PS: sarcasm aside I believe it takes a great deal of courrage and trust to choose to be dependent on your partner, but I don’t think it should be any harder for men to do than women.

Catherine // Posted 30 September 2008 at 9:42 am

Re. Michelle, is the problem here individual women, or is it institutional? You can’t persuade men to enter a profession if they don’t want to (see primary school teaching), but you can institute measures to help women already in it stay in it. If women are leaving healthcare because they can’t combine their professional life with having children, is the problem with the women, or with a system that requires the professional to live a life that makes full engagement with family life impossible for them? I also understand that there are particular issues in the USA in this field to do with malpractice insurance that make obstetrics and “undesirable” field.

On another sideways note, I I do think that there is too much government concentration on university at the expense of other forms of tertiary education, specifically technical employment training and apprenticeships, for both men and women, and that investment in this area would benefit young working class men (and women, and also young middle class men and women presently pushed towards university as the “best” option, who might actually prefer something else if there were a better choice). But focus and investment on this should be because it is a good end in itself (which it is – regardless of the social benefits for individuals, the UK has long had a shortage of trained technical staff, one reason that so many people from outside the UK and who are trained in these fields are employed here), not as a means of attempting to undermine the achievements of feminism in working for the legal and social equality of women with men.

Russell Quinn // Posted 30 September 2008 at 10:46 am

“Thirty years ago, nine out of ten women were married before they were 30. Now, only two-thirds are wed by that age.”

Are either of those figures true? Both seem crazy high to me.

Sarah // Posted 30 September 2008 at 10:57 am

Michelle, that’s a fair point, but it’s worth thinking about why women in some careers don’t feel they can continue working after they have children. After all, most men will become parents at some point in their lives as well, however it’s rare that anyone expects them to have to choose between this and having a career. So it can’t be simply that a career as an obstetrician is incompatible with being a parent, or men would show the same pattern of behaviour.

It would be ridiculous to use this as a justification to restrict women’s access to education/professional training anyway – that would hardly be fair for those women who don’t have or plan to have any children, or who do continue to work after having a child! And what about people who leave the profession for other reasons – I’m sure it happens. Would you make medical school entry conditional on signing a contract to work a full time ‘sentence’? How would you penalise those who break the contract? I can’t see how this would work in practice – at least not unless you want to sweep aside employment rights (and even human rights) as we know them.

Aimee // Posted 30 September 2008 at 4:08 pm

Michelle; perhaps instead of women considering whether their career choices will be compatable with their aspirations to procreate, why not redress the balance so that women have the same priviledges as men; which is to not HAVE to consider whether their career choice is compatable with having a family because men and women share the onus of childcare equally? Your assumption is that women are the main carers of children. We would be unlikely to consider whether or not men would make good healthcare professionals because they might have to worry about their families. We don’t consider that because we don’t consider that a man might be the one responsible for childrearing. It is wrong to justify your argument by using another injustice as a precedent.

Ian // Posted 30 September 2008 at 6:53 pm

Willetts is making the right point the wrong way , or vice versa or something . We now have too many people going to university of any sort such that they cannot always find jobs commensurate with a degree , and even many of those who do go into a job you didn’t always need to have that degree to go into that profession eg in the 1970s and early 80s you needn’t a degree to go into Chartered Accountancy .

The government should change university education in 2 radical ways – fully fund those on vocational courses like medicine , and attempt to dissuade those who are not going to get a degree which is vocational from going to Uni . This would also entail giving some professional bodies a bollocking to get them to accept students with A levels to learn on the job.

Ruth // Posted 30 September 2008 at 9:18 pm

Legible Susan,

actually it was New Labour who stopped student grants, in 1998. They wanted the expansion of the “new” universities, to keep young people off the unemployment register, but didn’t want to have to spend state (well, local authority) money on sending people to them and be accused of being Old tax-and-spend Labour.

nilsey105 // Posted 1 October 2008 at 12:40 am

For those unaware;

If your a mature student there are colleges around the UK that run 1 year courses to gain access to higher education.

Hillcroft College in surrey is or was for females only.

Fircroft in Birmingham

The northern college Sheffield

New Battle Abbey in Scotland

Ruskin College Oxford

Google see what you think

Janey // Posted 1 October 2008 at 11:08 am

I too am worried about the number of young women going to university. I think it indicates the continuing lack of opportunity for women — men have more choices. It may also be a response to a world where the frequent excuse for not hiring/promoting a woman is “you don’t have the qualifications” — even if somehow men don’t need them.

As for the “women with small children only work part-time” argument:

1) many women never have small children

2) many others never go part-time despite having small children

3) nobody has small children for more than a small fraction of their working lives

I would also add 5) men have small children too. Any profession that is not retaining women after motherhood is mistreating its women, and its men whose onerous working conditions are depriving them of their chance to play a full part in family life.

Ellie // Posted 1 October 2008 at 2:33 pm

Most of what I think has already been said but I just wanted to reply to Ian’s suggestion of discouraging those who do not want to study vocational subjects.

I don’t think the value of University lies solely in whether what you learn has practical application. Surely it is plain that academic discourse and the pursuit of knowledge have benefits which cannot be measured by what job you can get with your qualification, if they can in fact be measured at all.

I agree the government drive to get 50% of all young peole into higher education is misguided but that doesn’t mean that those who want to learn about a theoretical subject should be discouraged.

Jess McCabe // Posted 1 October 2008 at 2:37 pm

As someone who did English and comparative literature at uni, I agree with Ellie :-)

Cara // Posted 1 October 2008 at 4:46 pm

I completely agree with Ellie and Jess.

The point of doing a degree is not solely to get a job. As Ellie says, there are other benefits of an education.

I certainly think some benefits gained from a degree-level education, such as the ability to argue points in an articulate and logical manner, analytical thinking, ability to take in and evaluate large amounts of information quickly, independent and original thinking, presentation skills, communication, time management (especially since most students have to work) can be measured, and are often beneficial in the workplace; but agree that some can’t. Things like the pure enjoyment of it, personal development, intellectual stimulation, whatever you want to call it are less tangible but also important. If you’re doing a degree you don’t really enjoy or care about just to get a better job, you’re misguided. A degree isn’t necessary for career success, and most of the skills I listed above can be gained from vocational courses or just in the workplace too.

I do agree that the target of 50% of young people into further education is wrong; the proportion of people who care about the intangible benefits they will get from a university education is nothing like that high.

University should be for those who will truly benefit from it, and those people shouldn’t have to pay.

Whether those people are men or women, black or white, whatever should have nothing to do with it, and there are certainly issues with class, ethnicity and disability in the assessment process. Those need addressing – as many unis do, through summer schools, lowering grade requirements and so on. Tories may whine that that is special pleading, but it’s simply trying to undo the systematic discrimination non-white, non-male, non-upper-class people have suffered.

A lot of young people today (hah, yeah listen to grandma…OK I’m only 28) seem to think going to university is just what’s expected of them, or that without a degree they are consigned to work in McDonald’s. Neither is true.

I also agree with Willetts that there should be more vocational options; not everyone can start in the postrooom and become MD, or would want to, but that doesn’t mean they will benefit from 3 years of academic study.

Of course, Willetts is just being outright sexist complaining that women are taking the poor men’s places at uni away; whether someone is best suited to uni, vocational study or going straight into work has *nothing* to do with their gender, or anything else I mentioned above.

Anne Onne // Posted 1 October 2008 at 7:27 pm

Michelle, I’d suggest that a huge part of the lack of obstetricians is that its often seen as an undesirable career (certainly not as well paid as being a heart or brain surgeon), and a huge part of why this area is seen as unimportant is due to the hush hush nature of women’s health issues, abortion and the like, both in the general populace and at medical university. True, there is a shortage of obstetricians, as well as a shortage of abortion providers, but the context is more worying, because these issues (choice, for one, women’s bodies not being disgusting/sexualised for another) that are not getting discussed. As a society we’re coming close to forgetting just how bad it was before abortion was legal.

Besides, isn’t it unethical to assume that any student who proves capable and willing to study may or may not choose to have children, or may be compelled to look after them just because they are female? There’s another problem ompetitive courses lke law or medicine face: a proportion of students then go into investment baning or some such because they never intended to practise in that field, or changed their mind or whatnot. But since we can’t read their minds, we can’t throw people out, or not take them in, on the possibility they might do something like this, not without good reason. And ‘lots of women do it’ isn’t good reason.

Seems we’re punishing women twice there. Once by assuming that women should be the sole carers of their children, and twice by blaming them for complex problems.

Let’s not forget the institution is flawed. It only allows male doctors to work so many hours by relying on their wives to be doing all the cleaning, cooking and childcare for free. The fact that male doctors can put in so many hours isn’t a good thing. And if you see the levels of stress-related problems associated, you might agree. For very good reason the shift has lately been towards reducing hours.

What would reducing the number of women employed in medicine or otherwise achieve but making more women dependent on their husbands?

Why can’t we change the system so that both men and women can work around their children if they choose to have them? Why, after all the commotion about children of single mothers being the spawn of satan (clearly not, but that’s what they’d have you believe) and how bloody important it is to have a father figure, do these people then not actually care about said father having time to spend with the kids that so desperately need him?! You’d think that they never actually care about fathers, it’s all about being sexist! *rolls eyes* In all seriousness, if raising the next generation well is so important (which, althouth I think as a whole we should have less kids, it certainly is) it makes no sense to then treat people who chose to do this job as being lazy for not spending more time at work, or as if they’re doing something wrong because they have so much domestic work to do they can’t work 80 hour weeks. I should think that those that do the child care deserve a hell of a lot more flexibility than the system has to offer.

Besides, the whole basis is flawed. There is a higher percentage of people going to university than there used to be, regardless of gender. And as has been pointed out in the media lately, you don’t need a degree to to well in many fields, because quailificationsate getting more diverse.

I’m waay too tired to make any more sense, so forgive me if all of the above is acutally gibberish. For clarification, no anger is directed at individual commenters, but at the system.

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