Here’s a rather unusual story of someone hitting the glass ceiling, recounted to me recently by John himself. No further comment needed. But if anyone can point me to a good pictorial representation of the glass ceiling, I’d be really grateful.
John was a miner in the Llynfi valley in South Wales. After ten years of working with machinery he became a fitter, “a spanner being lighter than a shovel”. Then he hit what he called a glass ceiling – an unusual application of the image, given firstly that he’s a man and secondly that he was working underground…
Anyway, he applied for a job teaching first aid, at a mining training centre above ground. He worked at the training centre for ten years but suffered from a crisis of confidence – who was he to be a teacher in a white coat, without a qualification to his name?
Fortunately the crisis led to positive outcomes. John got himself a personal tutor in basic skills. After two years the tutor sent him on to do O levels, first in English and maths, and then in physics. This led on to enrolment in the Open University. While waiting for the Open University course to start he did an O level course in computers. John gained a degree in Humanities. During this time John gained promotion going from a basic mining instructor to advanced mining instructor to Introducing computers into colliery training offices and training the staff to colliery Training Manager responsible for the training of 1100 staff.
Not all went well – John was made redundant, got a job in a supermarket which he hated, since the boss was always telling him what to do whereas he was used to being trusted to do his job. so he left that. He then went on to a PGCE. Course, and now devotes himself to and teaches his hobby – of embroidery.
John’s story is an unusual illustration in some ways. It’s a partial example of the Peter Principle – John was promoted above his level of competence; but it was he himself who saw his own incompetence and decided to do something about it. It was his choice to leave that job. It might have signalled failure, but it turned out be a very positive choice which opened up further opportunities – onward progression both educationally and professionally.
Alison Wolf’s new book, The XX Factor, is jam-packed with juicy items, enough to keep book groups and academic seminars in discussion mode for many hours.
The sub-title, ‘how working women are creating a new society’, is a little misleading. Wolf focuses above all on women with top-end education. They are an elite, though when they are all put together there are a lot of them. She estimates these to be 15-20% of the population in most developed countries, amounting to some 70 million worldwide. They are educated at universities with high reputations, and they have high career aspirations. At the heart of the book is the argument that these women have a radically different experience from other women, who carry on doing the kinds of work women have done for decades, paid or unpaid . The subtitle occludes this key distinction.
Wolf’s argument , in essence, is that the experience of these elite women represents a huge change from even a single generation ago; and that their work – pay and careers – is pretty much equal with men’s. Subjectively as well as objectively they have very much less in common with other women(if indeed they have anything at all in common) than was the case in the days when childbearing and childrearing dominated the great majority of women’s early adulthood. As a result, it makes less and less sense to talk of women as a group. Sisterhood is diminishingly likely.
The book is a bracing challenge to those who persistently focus on gender inequalities. I agree with Wolf on the need to bear in mind the magnitude of change in the way opportunities work; and that for young highly educated women there are now few barriers at entry into employment. I also agree that inequalities between women have grown, and are now very considerable. I am less convinced, though, that the younger generations are guaranteed equality on a continuing basis. Wolf makes excellent use of longitudinal studies, and so she might agree that it will be really important to see where the current younger generations have got to as they move deeper into middle age. My hunch, looking at the work of Jenny Neugarten and others, is that the earnings gap will have widened again by then. Wolf reports on interviews with confident young women in many different countries, and seems confident herself that the equalisation will be maintained. I’m not so sure – but then I wouldn’t claim to have gone through the evidence in the same detail.
The book is an empirical treasure trove, packed with statistics but nonetheless highly readable. One stat which really surprised me is that there is equality between the proportions of highly educated men and women in their 40s who are childless – around 30% for those born in 1958. So, Wolf says, there is symmetry in their household circumstances. This goes against the analyses which say that motherhood penalises and fatherhood benefits earnings – but I’m not sure if these split out the highly educated. A large part of the explanation lies in increasing homogamy: because men increasingly want to marry women as highly educated as themselves (and these groups do on the whole marry, rather than cohabiting), and because these women are less keen to have children, then the price for men of their homogamy is increasing childlessness. Probing that for men would make an interesting study, alongside the debates about women preferring career to children. It would take us deep into the discussion of ‘choice’ – the fifth Paula Principle factor.
I’ve just finished Mary McCarthy’s remarkable 1960s novel. The group is one of Vassar graduates, so they are at the elite end of educated women, and they are closely bonded; they celebrate each other’s weddings, and offer support of a kind to each other on relationship and marriage issues. I picked it up thinking it might illustrate Paula Principle Factor 4 – that women lack the vertical networks to enable them to progress in their careers as fast as they might.
McCarthy offers us a colourful palette of characters, from independent (Polly) to submissive (Kay), baby-focussed (Priss) to lesbian (Lakey), and so on. They are introduced to us at Kay’s marriage to Harald, the aspirant playwright who turns out to be a drunken philanderer. They all intend to work, mostly in publishing, teaching or medicine. “The worst fate, they utterly agreed, would be to become like Mother and Dad, stuffy and frightened. Not one of them, if she could help it, was going to marry a broker or a cold-fish corporation lawyer, like so many of Mother’s generation. They would rather be wildly poor and live on salmon wiggle [?is what? ed.] than be forced to marry one of those dull purplish young men of their own set, with a seat on the Exchange and bloodshot eyes, interested only in squash and cockfighting and drinking at the Racquet Club with his cronies.”
You can see from this that McCarthy doesn’t pull her punches, in style or in what she chooses to observe. The next scene gives us a detailed description of Dottie losing her virginity to the heartless Dick. The dominant recurrent theme in the book is the inequality of power in personal relations,epitomised by the way Sloan, a pediatrician, dictates rigidly to Priss the way she should breastfeed her baby. It’s a powerful message, but I never felt preached at - the individual stories are too well sketched and McCarthy’s eye for detail and sardonic wit too strong for that. But I can very easily imagine the impact it must have made at the time (it was two years on New York Times bestseller list).
I didn’t really find the illustration of vertical social capital I was looking for. But there are some cracking vignettes of women and work. Here is Libby’s boss, the not-unsympathetic Mr Leroy, giving her an indication of what she should expect:
“That’s another thing Miss McAusland….Publishing is a man’s business…Name me a woman, outside of Blanche Knopf, who married Alfred, who’s come to the top in book publishing. You find them on the fringes, in publicity and advertising. Or you find them copy editing or reading proof. Old maids mostly, with a pencil behind their ear and dyspepsia. We’ve got a crackerjack here, Miss Chamberes, who’s been with us twenty years. I think she was Vassar too. Or maybe Bryn Mawr. Vinegary type, with a long thin nose that looks as if it ought to have a drop on the end of it, a buttoned-up sweater, metal-rimmed glasses; a very smart, decent, underpaid, fine woman. Our galley-slave, pardon the pun. No. Publishing’s a man’s business, unless you marry into it.”
My edition has an introduction by Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City. Her take on the book is interesting, but leaves me a bit uncertain where she ends up. “Although every generation of women likes to claim ownership of a ‘new’ set of problems that come with being a contemporary woman, The Group reminds us that not much has really changed. Sex before marriage, lousy men, career versus family – they’re all here. Indeed, in reading the novel, one might wonder if the greatest difference between the women of today and the women of seventy years ago may simply be the word ‘ choices’ - a word that lulls us into thinking we have some degree of control over our lives, into thinking, even that we have solvedthe problem that has no name.’ In The Group, McCarthy’s characters have no such out.”
I’m not sure whether Bushnell believes that women now have greater choice – PP factor 5 – or that that’s a delusion. I certainly share her admiration for the book.
The recent excellent report from IPPR on gender issues has immediate attractions for me. It’s great to see a thinktank using longitudinal data, as Tess Lanning and her colleagues do. They compare the experiences of women born in 1958 with those of the 1970 generation, and this gives us a powerful take on trends.
They rightly warn against seeing any tidy linear progression towards greater equality. In particular, we can see major divisions opening up between top and bottom, amongst women as more generally. One illustration of this is the changes in the amount of domestic work done by men; this has increased over time - but mainly amongst men with more education. So we have a picture of on the one hand households where both adults are well educated, most likely to be in work – and with a more equal balance of earning and domestic work between the man and the woman; and on the other hand households where both are on low or minimum wages, the woman probably working part-time – and, partly as a result of this, a persistently unequal division of household responsibilities. It’s likely that neither adult has much in the way of qualifications – but if one of them does, it’s more likely to be the woman, and yet she is more likely to have the major share of domestic work. It’s something I’d love to know more about as an important example of the workings of the PP.
This is an issue flagged up a couple of years ago by Goran Esping-Anderson in his book The Incomplete Revolution. He makes a powerful for taking households rather than individuals as the unit of analysis, and esepcially when we are thinking about equality issues. The implications of increasing homogamy are really considerable, materially and culturally. Amongst other things you have to assume that it will influence the relative educational achievements of the children of these households, leaving schools battling to deal with the growing inequality of wealth and of cultural capital.
One other point from the IPPR report: eldercare. The authors say that the cost and quality of eldercare is putting increasing emotional and financial pressure on families (it’s good that they used qualitative interviews to complement the quantitative analysis of cohort data). There are signs that families are more mistrustful of the quality of eldercare than of childcare, which means that the caresqueeze sandwich (elders becoming dependent just as children cease to be) assumes growing importance, including in its implications for women’s earnings and careers in later life.
I see this as a challenge which we have barely begun to grapple with. At a personal level I’m prompted in this by having a 97-year-old mother; she is in truly excellent care, so I am very lucky, but I see how easy it is for this kind of responsibility to knock people sideways, as individuals and as families. It needs a separate post, I think.
Today’s Financial Times reports that Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, moved yesterday to compel corporate Japan to promote more women. He asked them to set themselves a target – of at least one woman executive per company. As the Ft wrily remarks: “The request was polite and the scale was hardly European in ambition.”
In Japan women fill just 1.6% of executive roles (the European figure is 14%), so if even half of them they comply with their prime minister’s wish it would mark a big jump forward. It’s part of a wider tension within Japan about the role of women in the economy. This is powered in part by their singular demographic profile: a rapidly ageing population and very low immigration mean that they badly need more women to be economically active. Currently their rate is around 60%.
I find Japan’s trajectory particularly interesting. Three or four decades ago it was the country whose economic performance everyone admired. People rushed to try and work out their secret, and came back with reports of their consensus-building teamwork, their attention to quality on the production line, their astute use of technology and so on. They are just emerging from more than a decade of stagnation, but are still an economic powerhouse.
I was lucky enough to visit Japan a few times in the 1970s as a stripling international bureaucrat from OECD. I was, of course, extremely politely received and well treated, but there was a palpable unease at the age gap between the government representatives and myself (probably not helped by the afro haircut I had at the time). When it came to hierarchy, the country had very definite if implicit norms on the place of youth as well as of women.
Japan’s educational progress has outpaced attitudes and practice in their workplaces, most obviously in respect of women’s careers (though also in respect of changing attitudes to learning, with less rote learning). The move to enlarge opportunity for women makes simple economic sense. But here’s a further, slightly odd, thought. On this side of the world we have had speculation over whether a stronger representation of women might have prevented or mitigated some of the worst excesses of the financial sector. If wild and greedy behaviour here might have been tempered by a stronger female presence, might Japan’s need to inject greater dynamism into its economy require the same? It seems too neat a mirroring, but there is something about broadening the composition of the influential parts of our economy which maybe lends it some plausibility.
I’ve been murdering a few darlings this weekend. For anyone unfamiliar with this form of -cide, it means discarding already written passages in the interests of logic/wordcount/taste etc. I’ve been cutting down on the PP bookscript, trying to get through the earlier chapters (on educational crossovers, and on pay differentials) more quickly so the overall argument stands out. This means junking some things that I think are interesting/important.
Here’s an example, with some appended reflections it led me to:
“We know that family background counts for a lot in a child’s chances of doing well at school and going on to university. Now let’s look at the other side of our equation, at how far career success too is influenced by family background. We presumably want our doctors to be drawn from medical students who were the best available, regardless of sex, race or anything else. Likewise for our lawyers and legal students. It is inevitable that social background has some influence on education and career, but the hope – broadly shared across the political spectrum – is that whether or not a family is well-off should be a diminishing influence. This is the key to social mobility and young people’s chances of doing better than their parents.
Women now outnumber men in medical schools by about 3:2 [check]. But where do these students come from? Are they truly a meritocratic selection? Lindsey Macmillan’s analysis of the social origins of professional people is very telling. She uses the cohort studies of those born in 1958 and 1970 and focuses on when they were in the early stages of their careers , aged 33 and 34 respectively (ie in 1991 and 2004). Of women doctors, those born in 1958 came from families where the average monthly income was more than half as much again as the national average. As children, these women had scored on average higher than the norm on IQ tests, but only by about 12%, so there is no reason to suppose that they were one and a half times as intelligent or capable as all the others (acknowledging that IQ tests are very limited measures). The inescapable conclusion is that the relative material wealth of the home they grew up in gave some young women a significant advantage over their equally intelligent peers.
This is striking enough. But thirteen years later and this very substantial advantage had not shrunk, but had increased still further, to around 70%. (The figures for men were quite a lot lower, but also went up between the two cohorts: from 30% to over 55%.) In other words women from well-off backgrounds have become even more likely to benefit from openings to a medical career than their equally bright contemporaries from poorer backgrounds. Looked at from this angle, education reinforces inequalities rather than countering them; class trumps gender again.”
It’s rather a pessimistic conclusion. I think recurrently about Michael Young’s satire on meritocracy, and how the term is now used to mean almost the opposite of its original sense. Michael saw a perfect meritocracy as a dystopia; now it seems most of us think it is an attainable ideal. Equality is the missing dimension – Michael saw very clearly how meritocracy , left to itself, would reinforce inequalities. But I doubt if he ever thought of it in a gender context.
(Lindsey supplied me with a nice chart to illustrate this, but I can’t work out how to paste it into this blog.)
Today’s post is a little different. First, Amazons, the topic of today’s In Our Time on R4 (Melvyn Bragg’s job is the most enviable I can imagine….). The link to the PP is obvious - the Amazons are after all an exceptionally powerful example of convention-defying occupational choice . I wouldn’t want to push it too far, but it will be interesting to see when a woman reaches the top echelons of the military. And whether there is any discussion in that sphere over whether/how a female presence would make a difference to leadership styles, as there is over boardrooms and financial trading (and even politics….).
I went over to the British Museum ( I’m lucky enough to live 2 minutes from it) and found the vase where Achilles is in the act of killing the Amazon Penthesilea (alongside is one of an Amazon wearing the trousers – amazingly, this is also from a 470BC vase). On IOT Paul Cartledge told us that it’s not clear whether Achilles fell in love with her as he was killing her, or only when she was dead, but it’s an extraordinarily powerful metaphor either way.
Secondly, Tuesday was the 25th birthday of my daughter (relax Bernie, I’m not tying you into the Amazons). We had a really good celebration, and some discussion of how 25 is now probably as significant a marker as 21 or 18. I’m very much of the view that we need a different set of markers for the lifecourse – a view that David Watson and I put forward in Learning Through Life. Chronological ages are of course arbitrary to some – rather large – degree; but I also wonder how far the advances made in understanding human development in a number of disciplines will move us away from a universalist discourse, so that we think differently about ‘standard’ lifecourse stages for males and females. Just a thought, for now.
Yesterday, during the interval of an inspirational concert commemorating the 45th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, I had a chance conversation with Frances Lynch of the Electric Voice Theatre. She told me about her project linking young women to science through musical stories. It sounds a wonderful initiative, and very PP-relevant, so I’m passing on the link.
There is an extraordinarily strong link between women succeeding in education and where countries are on global measures of development. This is pretty well recognised by those who work in or with poorer countries (of which I’m not one). Whether you choose primary or secondary enrolments, tertiary graduation or adult literacy rates, there is a very close correlation between how well women do and the country’s economic and social trajectory. Within the world of development education the priority is well recognised in the way aid money is allocated: in 2009-10, on average 60% of all the OECD countries’ aid to education in poorer countries (excluding US) was directed specifically to achieving greater gender equality in education.
I’m no development expert, but I’ve been looking at some global trends in education and putting them alongside the relationship which the PP draws attention to, of a disconnect between qualification, skill and competence on one side and rewards from work on the other. This suggests to me a very broad outline of a four-stage development process which has been and is playing out across the world over the past century. As with any stage theory it would be absolutely fatal to interpret this as a universal or pre-determined sequence through which every country passes. But I am rather tentatively proposing that by using this schema we can add a new dimension to the longstanding policy emphasis in global development circles on the education of girls. Adding in the PP as a fourth stage is a warning that whilst achieving gender parity in education is a powerful motor for change and development, it only gets us part of the way.
Stage 1 The struggle for gender parity in schooling.
Everywhere girls have started from a long way behind. In some countries, mainly Sub-Saharan Africa, they still are. A major initial milestone is for girls to reach some approximation of parity with boys in primary and then secondary schooling. Older women have particularly low levels of literacy and qualification.
In poorer countries many children never make it to school, always more girls than boys. But the totals dropped from 107 million in 1999 to about 60 million in 2010, and the proportion of girls in this excluded group from 58% to 52%. Over half are in sub-Saharan Africa, and about a quarter in South Asia.
The World Bank calculates a Gender Parity Index (GPI), by dividing female by male values (for enrolments, or completion rates etc): 1.0 is perfect parity. Most regions of the world are close to gender parity in primary education, the exceptions being sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Middle East/ Northern Africa (MNA). In SSA 74% of boys complete primary compared with 67% of girls; the gap is 6% in MENA. Afghanistan, Central African Republic and Chad have furthest to go as countries in achieving gender parity at primary level.
Stage 2. The emergence of GPIs over 1.0.
Girls achieve parity in school – and then move ahead. The rates of adult literacy rise, faster for women than men. Coincidentally, perhaps, the country begins to be ready for economic take-off .
Globally, more countries now have higher female secondary enrolment rates than have higher male enrolments, ie a GPI of over 1 (85 countries to 71). Most of the former are in the richer countries. Latin American and Caribbean countries (LAC) have had higher female than male enrolments in secondary school for some time. In the decade 2000-2010 East Asia and Pacific (EPA) countries turned a male bias into a significant female one at this level, moving from a GPI of 0.96 to one of 1.06. SSA has maintained its male bias, with a GPI of 0.8. Low income is the strongest factor in explaining where male bias still occurs in secondary attainment.
Around 1990 there was a 13% difference in global adult literacy rates (82% male, 69% female). A decade later this had shrunk to 9% – 89% to 80%. Regional variation is strong: LAC and ECA have gender parity; MNA, and EAP moved above an adult literacy GPI of 0.8, with MNA making particularly rapid progress from 0.64 to 0.81 ; but SSA and SAS stayed quite low at 0.69 and 0.76 respectively. Remember, these are measures of relative female/male literacy , not absolute measures of literacy.
Stage 3. The gender crossover confirmed
A clear gap is established between women and men, running through the education system, from school into tertiary education. Female rates of adult literacy drop to low levels, and few women have no qualifications. Arguably this stage matches quite closely with the emergence of the country overall as a modern economic entity.
63% of all countries now have a tertiary GPI of over 1.0, and 37% below. This looks very like a key dividing line in the overall global map of development. LAC countries have been running tertiary GPIs of over 1.0 consistently for at least a decade, and the LAC region’s GPI is now around 1.20. EAP has turned a male bias of 0.91 into a female on of 1.08. By contrast, SAS and, especially SSA, have maintained a strong male bias, with the SSA GPI actually declining over the decade to 0.64.
Stage 4. The Paula Principle bites
The female-male competence gap becomes clear and pervasive at all levels . But there is relatively slow progress in closing the gender pay gap or the gender careers gap. Any such progress does not match the way the reverse competence gap is opening up. Underutilisation of female competence therefore assumes greater significance but not prominence. Equity reemerges but in a different form from stage 1.
I haven’t been able yet to construct a PP index to match the World Bank’s GPI, but this is where many OECD countries currently stand.
And who knows, there may be a fifth stage:
Stage 5. Post-Paula
The factors which underlie the PP are tackled, and the country moves towards full use of women’s competences – and fuller use of men’s as new worktime regimes emerge. Not to be thought of as an unrealisable utopia, but no country there yet.