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.

Claudia Goldin’s presidential address to the American Economic Association – don’t go away - is a stunner. It really should help to shift the whole focus of two important debates: the role and use of skills; and questions of gender equality at work. So it’s hugely PP-relevant.

There are large chunks of sophisticated number-crunching which are well over my head, but Goldin does a great job of summarising the key points, and how they fit into the historical narrative of what she calls the ‘grand convergence’ of male and female roles. She traces out the previous chapters of this narrative, which include greater female participation at work and, especially, changes in women’s educational levels relative to men. She shows very powerfully the need to look at women’s earnings over time: the gender gap grows very considerably after about 5 years for all cohorts (though one rather surprising finding seems to be a diminution of the gap from about 45/50 onwards – I’m not at all sure that fits with our UK picture).

Crucially Goldin finds that what happens within occupations is far more important to the gender pay gap than is the distribution by occupation.  We should pay more attention to how work is organised in particular occupations and organisations than to trying to equalise the spread of men and women across occupations (though that should not be ignored).   That’s something to get discussion going.

The crunch issue is time.  “Gender differences in earnings across occupations and occupational groups substantially concern job flexibility and continuity. By job flexibility I mean a multitude of temporal matters including the number of hours, precise times, predictability and ability to schedule one’s own hours.”

Her conclusion: “What, then, is the cause of the remaining pay gap? Quite simply, the gap exists because hours of work in many occupations are worth more when given at particular moments and when the hours are more continuous.”

This  is deceptively simple.  Goldin shows how pay gaps depend on how work is organised, and how this varies by occupation. The key factors are:

- how often the worker has to meet strict deadlines

- how far the worker has to be in contact with others

- how far the job requires the worker to be around to maintain interpersonal relationships

- how much  the work is structured to fit the particular worker

- how much the worker exercises discretion over the service provided .

The lower the score, the less the need for continuous, full-time presence at work – and therefore the lower the pay gap.  She illustrates this with examples from several professions, including pharmacy, which turns out to be the most egalitarian of all.

And here’s the punchline on what she calls the ‘last chapter’ in the convergence story:
“The last chapter must…involve a reduction in the dependence of remuneration on particular segments of time. It must involve greater independence and autonomy for certain types of workers and the ability of workers to substitute seamlessly for each other…The various types of temporal flexibility require changes in the structure of work so that their cost is reduced.”

Not all occupations can be organised to be flexible in the same way, and to have the features which would deliver Goldin’s agenda. But there is much to be done in rigorously looking at work organisation across in different occupations, and seeing what progress can be made. Getting away from broad generalisations about the importance of skill, and looking hard-headedly at what new time regimes are needed in order for people to exercise their skills and be rewarded for them, are two crucial steps.

Goldin says this is not a zero-sum game for men and women. I agree with her.  My only tentative point of disagreement is with her use of ‘grand convergence’.  Convergence is a term I’ve used myself;  the problem is that the convergence has very much been of women towards a male pattern.  I’m not sure we don’t need a different term, which makes two things clear: first, that not all the change is female-towards-male;  and secondly that we need to maintain a broad spread of work time options, across which both sexes are to be found, even if in different distributions.

I’ve just been to a stimulating meeting at the Resolution Foundation, which always provides food for thought on employment issues.  This one was on self-employment, which now counts for over 15% of the workforce – some 4.5 million people. As Gavin Kelly, the FR’s CEO, observed, when you have numbers of that kind routinely left out of most labour market analysis, it makes one query how robust the conclusions can be. Add to that the absurdity of using 16-64 as the age frame; and then pile on the limitations of the simplistic binary division between full-timers and part-timers and you reality begin to think that we need a radical rebuild of our categories for collating and using statistics on work.

Numbers of the self-employed have grown by about 2/3 of a million since 2008. The proportion of women has gone up from 23% to 28%. As a Fawcett Society staffer pointed out, the gender pay gap for the self-employed is around 40%. So it’s all very PP-relevant.  One argument says that women are more successful in setting up their own small businesses because they have more experience in running the small businesses called families.

Does this trend to self-employment herald a brave new dawn of autonomous entrepreneurialism? Or is it a dismal reflection of the fragility of the labour market? The general consensus at the RF meeting was that it covers a huge diversity of experience, making generalisations and averagings dangerous. One striking fact was that the UK is towards one extreme within OECD countries in the size of its self-employed group – probably a reflection of our less regulated labour market. For what it’s worth, my view is that it’s more about people making what they can of very difficult employment prospects, with the enthusiastic entrepreneurs a minority. Most self-employed want to work more hours, which suggests a level of underemployment. But it’s undoubtedly a variegated picture.

There was one brief mention of training. The self-employed are certainly a big enough group for those of us interested in lifelong learning opportunities o take them seriously. How good is their access to training, and how might this be supported? Technology certainly helps, but it seems to me likely that many would welcome local opportunities which would help them acquire the skills they need.

Finally, it was good to meet there the author of Flipchart Fairytales, an excellent source of information and reflection on all kinds of employment issues.

The chief executive of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook, recently made a really important point on gender ‘balance’, reported in the last issue of the Times Higher Education.  Speaking to the Association of University Administrators she observed that whilst it would take an additional 15000 female students to ‘balance out’ the current male dominance in engineering, it would take getting on for double that to do the same for the current female dominance of subjects allied to medicine, which includes nursing.   So, she argued, we should maybe be paying at least as much attention to getting more men into subjects where they are underrepresented as we do in respect of women.

I’ve put ‘balance out’ in inverted commas above because it’s used as synonymous with numerical equality, whereas I think it’s more sensible to give balance a broader sense, allowing some degree of numerical inequality.  There’s room for a good debate on what are the acceptable thresholds – i.e.  the level of female (or male) representation in any given subject, or profession, that means that we can reasonably relax about balance.    But apart from that I think Ms Curnock Cook is absolutely right to make this argument, and hope it gets taken up by those with responsibility in the respective subject areas.  Where are the equivalents to SWAN and WISE for nursing and teaching?

Here’s a slightly forced segue:  philosophy is one of those subjects where men still outnumber women.  I read recently an interesting lunch with the FT, where the lunchee was  the philosopher Mary Midgeley, on the occasion of her most recent book (at age of 94….).  This sent me off to read an earlier publication of hers, with Judith Hughes, on Women’s Choices.    It’s full of good sense – not always in plentiful supply in the 1980s – and finishes with this, which I think has major resonance today at all kinds of level:

“Unmitigated individualism is a death-wish.  Of course that may be one’s choice, and unquestionably death is always available.  but it is a decision which one ought to notice that one is taking.”

Talking recently to a few people about their experiences in the health service, and the choices they face about hospitals and treatments, gives this a real edge.  But on subjects and career choices, there’s still a lot we can do to give individuals a better range.

An interesting recent post from Jessica Valenti on ‘why the female confidence gap is a sham’ has made me rethink PP Factor 3.    PP Factor 3 refers to women’s greater reluctance to put themselves forward for jobs, or for promotions, as one of the explanations for flatter careers and lower pay.  I’ve been in the habit of labelling this as ‘lack of self-confidence’  but it needs a broader and more nuanced description.

Valenti’s piece is a guffaw at a new book The Confidence Code, which argues that American women need more confidence.  “It’s true,” she says, “that there’s a gendered disparity in confidence..but the ‘confidence gap’ is not a personal defect so much as a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.”  That makes some sense to me, but it prompts a rather different line of thought, about what counts as confidence, and how we judge it.  Is it about overtly unselfdoubting behaviour; a capacity to ignore other people’s views;   an individualistic determination to win one’s own case or game?   These are not always laudable attributes, but characterise quite a lot of what is seen as confident behaviour.  We all know that although it’s not always easy to draw the line, there are negative as well as positive forms of self-confidence.

So the question is, what kind(s) of self-confidence do we want to encourage, in women and men?  This brings us back to the convergence issue:  is the underlying trend to enable/encourage more women to behave more like men?  Or do we look for a reverse trend, where some characteristically male behaviour is rewarded less and characteristically female behaviour gains more recognition?   I’ve discussed this more than once in relation to working time patterns  - arguing that more men should be  able to choose to work part-time – but the Valenti piece makes me realise that it extends to this confidence factor  also, and probably further.

hard hats

There’s a further recent angle on the convergence issue.  A recent court judgment has awarded 23 male workers at the University of Wales £500K after they sued on grounds of sex discrimination.  The men, who worked as caretakers and tradesmen, discovered when they were absorbed onto the same pay scale as secretaries that they were being paid a lower hourly rate.  One female commentator expressed her instinctive unease at the law being used this way round – though she also expressed unease at her unease.  I think I understand that (the first unease, that is), but I guess it’s geese and ganders.

The big issue is to look critically at what counts as normal at work, and go for a set of norms which are both broader and better balanced.  In a previous post I’ve already expressed my views on the norm of always seeking to extract the maximum money you can from an employer.  Thinking about what should count as healthy self-confidence is in the same category.

Thanks to Sebastian Scotney for drawing my attention to the original post ;  jazz-lovers amongst you should like Seb’s excellent site.

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