I was chatting recently to a friend who lives in France.  We were musing sadly over the state of a country which we both love – she as a long-term resident, me as a sometime resident and frequent visitor.  The French economy is in poor shape, they have major social fractures, French culture seems to have lost its cutting edge;  and the political situation is dire, from almost every angle.

There was an interesting recent piece by a political journalist (I’m afraid I can’t remember who it was) which argued that the French presidency was designed by de Gaulle for himself; more or less worked for him for most of his incumbency;  but since then has been in steady and inexorable decline.  De Gaulle set it up to combine a degree of democratic legitimacy with an embodiment of the French state – himself.  The President has enormous executive powers  He (they have all been men) can and does dismiss Prime Ministers, and at the same time represents the state, externally and internally.

It requires very considerable stature to make this kind of constitutional set-up work.  But stature is precisely what has been in shorter and shorter supply – and I’m not referring to the difference in height between De Gaulle, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.  Sarko’s offensive blingery (to say nothing of his possible corruption, currently under investigation) and Hollande’s lack of leadership and personal authority have overseen a steady slide in the standing of the presidency and in the efficacy of the French system.  It’s no surprise that they are morose.  The only winners have been the Front National.

So these men have not been up to the job.  In a sense they have all been instances of the Peter Principle, rising at least one level too high. That may be unfair in this case, if the job is simply not doable, as the pundit argued.  Maybe anyway it’s the case that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure”, as Enoch Powell famously remarked.  But I have been thinking anyway of a significant contrast between two prominent politicians of the last Labour government.

Gordon Brown was a man of extraordinary ability and a commanding figure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a sad failure in the prime ministerial position for which he’d waited so long.  He could not make the necessary decisions, including, fatally, on the timing of the general election which he eventually lost.  The qualities which marked him as a highly competent Chancellor (though not without flaws – no space for that here) were not the ones which could sustain him in the top job.

In the same administration, Estelle Morris resigned as Secretary of State for Education.   She had been a teacher herself, and arguably understood education from the inside better than very many of those who have held that office.  But she acknowledged that she felt the job of being in charge of the country’s education system was just too big for her.  For this she received some very unworthy flak for having betrayed the cause of women.  But how courageous a decision that was, and in the long term – I think –  how empowering, for men as well as women.

I have to add one other example, which goes against my case:  Alan Johnson, who refused to run for leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that he did not think he was suited to the job.  Anyone who has read his wonderful memoir, This Boy,  will know just how remarkable his journey to the top has been, and I am a wholehearted admirer of his political intelligence and personal humanity.   We’ll never know if it was the right decision, but it was a fine one to make.

Having started off this post being gloomy about France, I’ll finish on a cheerier note.  I’ve asked Clo’e Floirat to do the illustrations for the Paula book.  Below is an example of her  fine work, which I hope you’ll enjoy.



illustration © Clo’e Floirat

Today will be full of news about A level results and what is happening to student access to higher education.  I hope at least some attention will be paid to the continuing plunge in mature student enrolments, and especially to the way in which part-time higher education has been harshly squeezed over the last years, but the focus will be on school leavers.  My firm bet is that a count of the images used in the press reports on exam results will show a big majority of girls.  One reason of course is that papers find them more photogenic , and they probably smile more easily than boys;  but another is that there will, yet again, be many more successful girls than boys.

I want to switch attention away from HE, to the much neglected FE sector.   FE was the first sector where a ‘gender crossover’ took place, i.e. where women began to outperform men educationally.   That was a good 25 years ago. I chair the governors of the Working Men’s College in Camden, which caters for an extraordinarily broad range of students.  Our Diversity Day is a glorious spectacle, as students from over 60 nationalities put on national costume, and provide national food and music.    Our major strength is in ESOL, but we excel in all kinds of fashion courses, and in arts and humanities, including pottery classes which produce a constant stream of interesting shapes.  Our latest venture is hair and beauty – inside Holloway Prison.working-mens-college-logo

Of course our name is a regular source of comment, and about every five years we  think about changing it.  Over two thirds of our students are women.  We do call ourselves the Working Mens College for men and women, and our  subtitle is Camden’s Community College.  But the title is literally built into the bricks, and is a powerful brand with a very long history reaching back to the 19th century, so for the time being it endures.

Anyway, I’ve just been reading papers from the Dept of Business, Innovation and Skills on ‘outcome-based success measurement’ for colleges (such are the joys of governorship).   I think, incidentally, these are probably the first DBIS papers published under the watch of Nick Boles, who has been appointed as the new Minister for Skills and Equality  - that’s an interesting combination of portfolios, and I look forward to seeing how he brings the two together.  DBIS is pushing forward outcome measurement, which is fair enough – provided that the measures are used in the right way, and they have published a consultation

The key measures are sustained employment and sustained learning.  In the accompanying paper on experimental data, for those who finished a course in 2010-11 we can see first that there are many more women completing FE courses – 814K to 676K, a difference of around 20%.  When it comes to employment outcomes – i.e. whether the person went on to be in employment for at least 5 months out of 6 during the period October 2011 to March 2012 – the rates are identical for women and men, at 61%.  But when it comes to sustained learning – i.e. those who were engaged in learning, whether or not they were also in employment – there is a large gap:  24% of women are still learning a year or so on from completing their course, compared with 17% of men.   That means about 115K men continued learning – and 195K women.  The competence gap continues to surge, in FE as elsewhere.

I’ve just finished reading Money for Everyone by Malcolm Torry.  It’s an exhaustive, and quite exhausting, account of the case for a Citizen’s Income – a basic unconditional payment to be made to every citizen –  man, woman and child.  A simpler version of the case is available from www.citizensincome.org.uk.

The CI would bring together our current tax and benefits systems – if they can be described as such.  Torry goes into gruesome detail on the complexities of the benefits system.  He shows how strong the incentives are for people to cheat.  The complexity and perversities of the ‘system’ are such that anyone with an unstable earnings record is likely to have really strong reasons not to declare earnings.   The costs of byzantine conditionality are enormous.  In straight financial terms it costs £181 to administer an Income Support claim, £92 for a Jobseekers Allowance and £351 for a means-tested Pension Credit.  These are just the administration costs.  On top of this come the financial costs to the individuals; and the psychological costs of confusion, uncertainty and unfairness.  A basic unconditional payment would cut these at a stroke.

From the PP point of view, the key issue is the provision of a steady income platform on which an individual can build as circumstances require.  The incentive to earn is much clearer, and people keep a far higher proportion of any additional earnings.  For those who do not conform to the standard model of continuous full-time employment, the benefits are enormous.  And of course most of these are women.  Because a CI would mark a giant step towards dethroning the full-time continuous job as the standard, it would give a huge boost to careers which do not fit this pattern.  And this means a much better outlook for women’s competences.

It would mean, obviously, that paid work would be more likely to fit with other responsibilities.  It would mean, gradually, that employers would recognise that people who are working non-standard patterns can be just as committed, and just as interested in a ‘career’, as anyone else.  And it would mean that unpaid work would be treated more on all fours with paid work – and the competences which accompany unpaid work would achieve better recognition.  All of these would do much to get a better fit between women’s competences and careers; and at the same time it would greatly expand the range of realistic choices open to men as well as women.

The CI has been around for a long time.  It has generally been dismissed as either cranky or ok in theory but unworkable.  But when it was first being discussed 20 or so years ago, the labour market was very different.  Employment patterns are now so diverse that the CI looks a much less strange idea.  By coincidence, this is exactly the conclusion Larry Elliott comes to in today’s Guardian.

As a political sell, it’s a tough one.  Many will have an instinctive reaction against the unconditional something-for-nothing proposal. You can imagine what the Daily Mail would make of it.  But as Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit – intended to address some of the very same problems – flounders hopelessly, the CI may just be able to claim a realistic place on the agenda.


I watched Jimmy Wales being interviewed on Newsnight last night.    They are aiming to increase the diversity of their contributors, on gender and other dimensions.  He said that only 9-14% of the contributors to Wikipedia are women.I found this figure surprisingly low, and wondered what the reasons for it might be.  The most likely seems to me to be to do with self-confidence:  women are less likely to consider themselves authoritative enough to provide an entry, or to correct others’ entries – even though there is no entry barrier to contributing, as far as I know.

Wikipedia image






A few days ago I interviewed Ann Oakley.  She referred to a book by Jean Baker Miller, written in the seventies, Towards a New Psychology of Women.  It had a chapter called ‘Doing good and feeling bad ’, which Ann said had influenced her.  Women are brought up to think of themselves as serving others, whereas men think of themselves as autonomous beings with their own individual pathway.  We talked about how men and women do or don’t put themselves forward, and it occurred to me that ‘self-promotion’ has a dual sense:  putting oneself forward, generally, into the public eye;  and (thus) securing an actual promotion.  But this doesn’t explain the Wikipedia absence, since there is no personal promotion – exactly the reverse.

I like the Wikipedia image/logo, with its jigsaw pieces .  Jimmy Wales said that of course it was a work in progress, and would always be so.  I hope the collective assembly of the jigsaw, without hierarchy, can be maintained, even when there are so many attempts to manipulate the authority of knowledge.

The cabinet reshuffle has hardly been an exercise in gleaming meritocracy: after much trailing that it would change the gender profile, just two women were added to the numbers of full cabinet members.  This is not, at all, a snide comment on the competences of those who have been promoted.   It is simply that the exercise seems to have been very largely to do with presentation, and not at all to do with competence.  And that’s not only unhelpful to the supposed  beneficiaries but runs directly against the cause it’s supposedly espousing – better recognition for women.

It’s good that David Cameron has been sparing in his reshuffles.  Whether you like what they’ve done or not – and I mostly don’t, sometimes strenuously  so – he has allowed his ministers to get their feet well under their desks, learn their trades and work to a reasonable timescale.

But the timing and manner of the reshuffle has had consequences.  Some ministers have been shifted out who have performed adequately or at least done what they were supposed to do.  Some who have stayed have shown spectacular incompetence, damaging many others very badly but apparently not themselves – Iain Duncan Smith being an obvious example. But the main relevance to the Paula Principle is the way in which the women have been appointed so late in the (fixed) parliamentary cycle that they are given no chance to demonstrate competence.  We are already nearly into conference season and then the election;  even if they happened already to have their new portfolio at their fingertips, they can hardly introduce any changes before time runs out.

It means, inescapably, that this has been a pretty cynical exercise.   I am slightly reminded of the ‘glass cliff’ idea – that where women are put in charge of companies it is the ones which are just about to plunge downwards.   Be that as it may  Nicky Morgan, who replaces Michael Gove, may be a tough and clever politician, but she is clearly there to put an emollient sheen on the government’s record.  The competences required are cosmetic not substantive, and that is sad.

By the way, I learn from the Centre for Women & Democracy website that  Ed Miliband  has committed Labour to having 50% women in their next cabinet.  They already have 40% in the shadow cabinet, so they are above any reasonable threshold.   The rigid 50/50 formula is to me not just practically problematic , but actively undermines the notion of gender which rejects treating women and men as two wholly discrete groups.  Why shouldn’t women make up 60% of the cabinet?

I’ve been reading Margaret MacMillan’s highly informative The War That Ended Peace.  She shows how all the relevant countries – Germany, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary and Britain – were constantly feeling their way round each other, testing out existing alliances/ententes and sounding out new ones in a revolving set of courtship dances.

Macmillan war book The single most striking account is of Kaiser Wilhelm’s character.  Here was a playground bully totally used to getting his own way, an immature adolescent in charge of a country, and an army and navy.  MacMillan shows him blundering around in diplomatic exchanges  - at times laughably so, except that the consequences were dire;  not that she blames him exclusively for the slide to war.  MacMillan suggests that Wilhelm secretly knew that he was not up to the task of running the country.

The single most striking account is of Kaiser Wilhelm’s character.  Here was a playground bully totally used to getting his own way, an immature adolescent in charge of a country, and an army and navy.  MacMillan shows him blundering around in diplomatic exchanges  - at times laughably so, except that the consequences were dire;  not that she blames him exclusively for the slide to war.  MacMillan suggests that Wilhelm secretly knew that he was not up to the task of running the country.

Which makes him an unusual example of the Peter Principle – except of course that he did not rise to his position but inherited it (a good argument for democracy if ever there was one).  On the other hand Helmuth von Moltke the younger was promoted to his position, as chief of German general staff, a position he held from 1905 to 1914.  His father had held it before him, but this did not give the younger Moltke complete self-confidence:

“Moltke was a big, heavy-set man who looked the picture of a bold Prussian general but in reality he was introspective and insecure….Moltke never mastered the work of the general staff in the detail Schlieffen [he of the Schlieffen plan] had done and tended to let its various departments run in their accustomed fashion while he spent more time on managing the Kaiser [see above….] and his Military Cabinet.”

These are not ideal examples of incompetence, but ones who played a very significant part in moving things on to their catastrophic conclusion.  Macmillan suggests that both were at least to some extent aware that they were beyond their level of competence.   She doesn’t let senior politicians or military men from there countries off lightly either.   I guess we could build up a long list of examples of the Peter Principle in history;  selecting which were the most significant would keep the conversation going for a while….

I’ve been off-blog for a while attending to family business, of which the central feature was scattering my mother’s ashes in her native Kincardineshire.   She was 98 when she died last year and ready to go, so there was no sadness.  We (me and my family, my brother and his family) used the opportunity to hook up with some cousins and second cousins whom we had either never met, or not seen much of.  My grandmother had 12 siblings, and my mother as a result had 64 cousins, so the family tree is a bit complex.  We filled in some gaps, but principally we just enjoyed exchanging family stories.

One set of second cousins, Val and Wilson, are homeworkers, and boy, how both parts of that word apply.   Val and Wilson grew up in adjoining farms, though they didn’t meet until their late teens.  They have recently moved out of the main farmhouse to make room for their son and his family, and their parents did, taking up residence in a smaller house just over the hill.  Their side of the family have worked their farm for five generations, so the ‘home’ has deep roots.

As for the work:  the farm has cows,sheep and cereals.  It’s not a dairy farm with the constraints that brings, but they give themselves just a couple of days off twice a year.  At lambing time they are up at 4am and getting to bed late at night.   Quality of life pretty high;  free time definitely low.

Val and Wilson are homeworkers par excellence.  There’s been a fair amount in the press recently on homeworkers generally, including some average pay figures which show them to be quite well paid.    But as so often, overall labels hide some quite important disparities.  ‘Homeworking’ covers two types:  those who use their home as a base for their work but actually do the work elsewhere;  and those who actually work at home or around it.  So the former  would include plumbers and management consultants;  the latter dressmakers and  farmers.

I don’t have a split on how female and male homeworkers are rewarded.  But I do have the breakdown on whether they work at home or not (see below).  You’ll see that overall men outnumber  women by about 2 to 1.  But that’s because many of them use the home as their base,  When it comes to actual home-based working, women outnumber men.  My guess is that there is a fairly strong division between the two categories in the rewards they get for their work, and the reasons why they work from home.    As so often, a single label can cover very different experiences.


All home workers HW_home and grounds1 HW_home as a base2 Not home worker All employed
Male 64.4 46.9 74.2 51.7 53.5
Female 35.6 53.1 25.8 48.3 46.5
Source: ONS Labour Force Survey
1. HW_home and grounds includes all those home workers who report they work from their own home or within the grounds of their home.
2. HW_home as a base includes all those home workers who report they meet clients and customers elsewhere but use their home as a base.

For my book group (all-male  - apparently book groups are powerful examples of our homophiliac tendencies, even more so for women than men) last night we had read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  Everyone had enjoyed it, laughed at it, and marvelled at Fitzgerald’s apparent capacity to get under the skin of Russian society without ever having been there.  (None of us knew much about Russia, but the descriptions were thoroughly convincing to us and to the critics who put the novel on the Booker shortlist.)

Fitzgerald had a remarkable personal history.  She was the granddaughter of the Bishop of Lincoln and grew up surrounded by uncles and aunts of diverse talents. She married Desmond, a barrister who never recovered from his war experiences and became an alcoholic.  This meant that the family – they had 3 children – slid steadily down the social scale, from Hampstead to a damp cottage in Suffolk, then on to a houseboat which twice sank, and eventually to a council flat in Ponders Green.Beginning of Spring

Fitzgerald only took up writing books at the age of 58.  Her first story was written to amuse her dying husband.  She went on to publish four novels which drew heavily on her own life, e.g. The Bookshop which draws on her experience of working in one in Southwold, and then four more which were built up from careful research into more or less esoteric subjects.  The Beginning of Spring  is about an expatriate Brit running a printing firm in Moscow in the early part of the C20.

Fitzgerald gained eventual recognition, winning several literary prizes, but her unconventional route to very late authorship posed problems for  committees and critics.    As Jenny Turner puts it in her LRB review of Hermione Lee’s biography:

“A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.”

What makes Fitzgerald so relevant to the PP is that she is a fairly extreme instance of a woman whose career flowers late, in her case as in so many others after bringing up children.  It’s a striking model of something we should get used to and encourage – not necessarily as the ideal route, but as an option.

On the same day, we heard about Labour’s proposals that lower earners might be included in the auto-enrolment system for pensions.  Rachel Reeves, the shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions has suggested that the level for auto-enrolment be lowered from its current £10000 to the Lower Earnings Limit for National Insurance, which is currently just under £6000.

The great bulk of the beneficiaries of such a move would be women, of course.  It would do something to recognise that for many people there is no steady ‘career’, with more or less continuous employment.  This in itself is no bad thing;  many of us would benefit from a more variegated pattern of work.   But it should not  carry the penalty that it does.  I wonder if Fitzgerald might have fallen into exactly the category of people that these proposals would help.


PS  I use ‘homophiliac’ above  to mean seeking out the same.  The dictionary, however, equates it with homosexual, which seems to me perverse (as a definition).   But I couldn’t find the term I was looking for, if it exists.



I’ve just read Guy Standing’s The Precariat, which came out a couple of years ago.  Standing, a former ILO official, documents the global growth in the numbers  of people working in insecure conditions, with few or no contractual rights.    He builds a very powerful argument, though to my mind he throws slightly too many babies into the bathwater, and it becomes difficult to see where the boundaries are that divide the precariat from the rest.  Women, of course, form the bulk of those who work in these conditions, especially in poorer countries but also in wealthier ones.  They have always been part of what used to be called the peripheral labour force, a forerunner of the precariat.

woman on clockchaplinclockStanding has an interesting chapter on what he calls the time squeeze.  In it he calls for a new approach to how we think about working time, getting us beyond conventional ideas of blocs of time: in the day, a big bloc was spent continually at the workplace, and in life a single big bloc was spent in work between the much shorter ones of education and retirement.  The blocky structures don’t any longer reflect reality , and never did for women.  Harold Lloyd’s famous clock scene conveys a definitely  precarious  relationship between man and  the symbol of industrial time, with a contemporary mirror image from Good Housekeeping, accompanying a piece on time management…

Link this to points I’ve made in previous blogs about the inadequacy of ‘part-time’, as a category in its current form, and to the growing arguments about self-employment and zero-hours contracts.  We have 8 million part-timers, over 4 million self-employed and indeterminate numbers on zero-hours.  Aggregate these, and they are no longer a peripheral group.   We also have more and more people working beyond retirement age, usually part-time.  Standing cites evidence from the US on increasing numbers who don’t see themselves as ever retiring.  So the old ways of dividing up time, and looking at these divisions, look increasingly threadbare.

This all suggests we might be at a point where a new vocabulary starts to emerge;  and along with it new categories both for the practical task of gathering statistics and for how we analyse whatever is going on out there.  Standing comes up with ‘tertiary time’ as a new term , more suitable for a society which has gone beyond the agrarian and the industrial.    I’m not sure ‘tertiary’ really works, but it’s worth thinking about.

I’ve just been at a session of the Skills Commission.  Alan Felstead, whose work on how the skills picture has evolved over time has been so valuable, gave evidence before me, drawing on data which goes back twenty years or more.  Alan showed how the incidence of training declined before the recession but, surprisingly, not during or since.  However the duration of training has shrunk – i.e. the time people spend in training is going down.

The focus of the Commission’s discussion was on how well skills are being used.  Here the picture is complex and the evidence often quite tricky to interpret.   Alan’s general points are:

1.  The issue is much more one of under-use of skills than of shortages.  In other words, we should be looking less at the supply side, and more at what happens to the skills that are there.

2.  Over-qualification grew steadily between 1986 and 2006, for graduates and for the working population overall.  It seems to have levelled off recently.

3.  People report themselves working at higher levels of intensity and pressure.

Overqualification rates are reported as higher for men than for women, by a couple of percentage points.  But here we get into some of the interpretation problems,  since we know that men are more likely to consider themselves able to do the job, and women are more likely to say that there are parts of a job they cannot do.   Similarly on work intensity:  women are now considerably more likely to report themselves as in a job which requires them to work hard, the gap being 8 points now compared with 2 points 20 years ago;  but how sure are we that there is no difference in the way he sexes report this?   On both of these the Commission good-humouredly agreed that there was scope for debate….

One of the Commissioners, Ian Ferguson, runs a technology business employing several hundred people.  He challenged my claim that men are far less likely than women to choose to carry on doing the job they are in because they like it and aren’t over concerned about promotion.  I’ve had this response from computer programmers also.  So it’s an issue on which they might well be considerable variation across sectors.  I wonder, for instance if the same would be true in the creative skills – Dinah Caine, CEO of Creative Skillset, is another Commissioner, and I shall follow it up with her.

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