OECD says it: rebalance the system in favour of FE

My former colleagues at OECD have just produced an excellent report which should disturb, and which deserves really wide discussion – especially as I agree wholeheartedly with one of their major, and radical, recommendations.

Building Skills for All: A Review of England looks at the problem of low skills.  A familiar issue, you may see – haven’t we heard it all before.  Well,  try this:

“Around one in five young English university graduates can manage to read the instructions on a bottle of aspirin, and understand a petrol gauge, but will struggle to undertake more challenging literacy and numeracy tasks.”

This is based on PIAAC evidence – an international survey based on direct testing of people’s competences (Hence the aspirin bottle and petrol gauge – real-life tasks sued for the tests).  These are graduates in the standard English sense – people with degree qualifications.  Makes you think, whether or not you’re a Daily Mail reader.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 17.46.34


England is in the top right quadrant:  high proportions of graduates, but unusually high proportions of them with low skills.  Not where you want to be.

I’m not happy about that.  But I am happy about the conclusions that the OECD draws:

  “Those with low basic skills should not normally enter three-year undergraduate programmes, which are both costly and unsuited to the educational needs of those involved, while graduates with poor basic skills undermine the currency of an English university degree. These potential entrants should be diverted into more suitable provision that meets their needs. Such students need postsecondary alternatives that will address their needs andtackle basic skills. Such alternatives need further development in England. Resources diverted from university provision should be redeployed, particularly in the FE sector, to support this.” (p16)


Some of us have been arguing for some time for such redeployment, though not on the basis of the evidence that the OECD have now been able to adduce. Alison Wolf is one who has powerfully pointed out the almost grotesque imbalance in the way the FE sector is treated compared to HE.  I know that my former university colleagues (yes, I’ve been around, so have quite a variety of former colleagues) will rush to say that the two should not be pitted against each other.  I accept that there is no necessary zero sum gain;  but the imbalance stands to be corrected.

Why should HE students be funded at twice the rate of their FE equivalents?  FE caters for a poorer student population, who generally have less in the way of family support as well as qualifications and money.

There’s a further wrinkle.  HE students now take out big loans, paying £9K fees to universities, who are now cash-rich.   Mostly, university graduates will go on to earn higher incomes, and pay back the loans.  That’s the theory, and some of the public money lent out will come back (though not nearly as much as the government originally said).  But it’s much less likely to come back from graduates with low skills.  So the public purse is particularly being used to support the graduates with low skills.  I’m all in favour, – very much so – of supporting people with low skills;  but the finance for this does not need to go on high fees for university study.  It seems to me unarguable that many of these would be far better off in a college – especially if that college were more adequately  funded to give them the support they need.

One other item from the OECD report:

“Over the period 2011-13 the number of staff receiving training increased, but overall spending declined (UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 2014). According to a 2012 survey among UK employers 27% of all the time spent on continuing vocational training2 courses was devoted to mandatory training, often related to health and safety (BIS, 2013). Such mandatory training is often common among low-skilled workers, but in it nature it may not contribute much to basic skills development. ” p79

In other words, our training effort is declining;  and a significant chunk of this goes on activities which  may be important (as safety is) but which don’t do much to address the issue of low skills.





An update on the PP

New Year’s Day, and the chance to take stock on the Paula Principle.  I finished the book a year ago but still haven’t managed to find a publisher.  I’ll have in any case to update it (once I finish what I’m currently doing, a report for Unesco on the state of play on adult learning across the world), partly because some of the statistics need it but also because some of the debate on gender issues has moved on.  I still don’t claim to be a gender specialist, but writing the book has meant that my eye is caught by gender items in the media, and this has prompted some further thoughts.

One development is the way a whole plethora of new gender-related terms is emerging: cisgender, intersex, third gender and so on.  Transsexuals and transitioning have been much in the news.  I don’t know what the best estimates are for what proportion of the population are transsexual, but it seems as if it is more than any.   I read somewhere that there are now over 50 ways in which you can answer a question about your gender.  So much for a tidy gender divide.

I find this particularly important because it reinforces my opposition to 50/50 solutions, which seek ‘balance’ by putting all women in one category and all men in the other.  I can maybe accept this kind of proposal as an interim measure to break a mould, but the proliferation of gender categories underlines how unsatisfactory it is.   Which is why I can’t fully support the new Women’s Equality Party, much though I sympathise with most of their goals.

Anyway, here’s the summary update on the PP:

1.  Women continue to outpace men in educational achievement.  The gap is growing across the developed world.  In fact Unesco is now thinking about abandoning its goal of ‘gender parity’ because although women in poor countries still suffer greatly more than men from lack of literacy, this is balanced under the current metric by women in developed countries outperforming men – so the overall ‘parity picture’ is completely misleading.  In the UK, women are further ahead than ever generally in education.  They do far better than men in securing access to university ( now heading for a 2:1 ratio as undergraduates),  including doing relatively better from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Women continue to dominate the ranks of adult education classes.   So the picture on that half of the PP is very clear.

2.  The other half of the picture – the rewards for greater educational achievement, in terms of pay and careers – is more complicated.  For full timers the pay gap is closing, though slowly, and for young full-time professionals it has more or less closed altogether, as Alison Wolf has argued.  I But over time the careers (and pay) gap opens up, and gets much wider  for older age groups.  So it’s crucial to look at careers in a life course perspective:  how well are people able to use their competences over the full 50 years of the future working life?   And, as regular readers of this blog will know, I think we cannot go on consigning part-timers to a peripheral position as if they didn’t really count.  It’s timely also to emphasise that the PP applies not only to senior professionals of the Lean In variety, but to women at all occupational levels.  The administrative officer aiming to move up a grade matters as much as the lawyer aiming for judgeship.

3.  It’s the combination of these two trends – a fast-growing female/male qualifications gap, and a slowly-if-at-all declining careers gap –  that give the Paula Principle such originality as it may have.   Higher qualifications/competences should lead to better rewards – and they don’t, at least not as much as they should if you follow a meritocratic line of thinking.   But the political  implications of the two trends need some unpacking, and may overturn some of the usual approaches. For example,  the educational superiority of women gives the debate on equality a rather different slant.  There are some subjects – notably engineering, at all levels including apprenticeships –  where women still do worse, and there is a lot of action on various fronts to change this.   But the equality issue in the PP context is not about educational achievement, but about what happens at work.

The PP is fundamentally an argument for meritocracy – that women’s competences should be recognised and rewarded fairly.  But, as Michael Young so acutely pointed out when coining the term, meritocracy brings with it its own dangers.  Without socially agreed measures to prevent gross inequality, reward systems can produce some grotesque outcomes.  The PP is also about the limitations of education in bringing about social change;  this is why I think putting so much emphasis on social mobility through schools and access to higher education is a flawed strategy  (as the New Economics Foundation observes, in a telling report on inequality).

Equality + meritocracy =? :  a good formula for a lively political discussion?

4.   The implications  of the PP spread across countries, and play out differently in different cultural contexts.   Education generates pressures which can transform  societies.  If these pressures are denied outlet,  the results are unpredictable.  At one extreme we have Saudi Arabia:  how much longer will highly educated women put up with being segregated at work and denied access to senior positions (to say nothing of the rest of that country’s politics)?  But more civilised countries such as Japan and Korea are experiencing similar, if less extreme, tendencies: women’s educational levels soaring, but very little corresponding change in the world of work.  Korea’s gender pay gap is stuck around 40%, in spite of Korean women being amongst the most highly educated in the world.  The UK’s position is much more favourable, but the pressures are still there.  How will societies handle these pressures over the next 5 years?

5.  One important challenge offered by the PP, it seems increasingly to me, is how to review the ways in which jobs and occupations are defined, and therefore the competences needed to do them.  Many of them are of course defined by those who have done them up to now, who naturally find it hard to think that the definition might be out of date.  This could  be because it never really matched what was needed, or because technical or other innovations have changed the job, to a greater or lesser extent. In any case, questions need to be asked.   Do lawyers really have to work 14-hour days?  Are we serious about valuing ‘soft’ skills, at all levels?   Does the presence of women impair the quality of a front-line military unit?   What effect do social networks have on the promotion process?  The answers are more obvious in some cases than others, but such questions a need to be asked – and answered.  (For an interesting example on how we define successful philosophising, see bit.ly/1CHrpx7, especially the penultimate paragraph.)

5.  There is now mounting evidence on the ways in which diversity helps groups to function better – and not only at board level.  This is not just a question of adding in more women (or other underrepresented groups).  It’s about thinking about skills and competences in collective terms, so that its members complement each other.  (As chair of a college’s governing board I think about this from time to time, recognising, for example, that we need the stickler who pulls us up on details – up to a point).  But we’re too used to recognising and rewarding individuals alone.  It would be good to know more about systems that are designed to do that for collective competence.

6.   I remain convinced that of the 5 PP factors, choice is the most interesting:  where women positively choose not to continue up the ladder, for good reasons.  As conventional career patterns disintegrate in the wake of the recession – and, to some extent – as computers/robots move into previously human-dominated occupations – some of us at least have the opportunity to rethink how much to work, when and what for.   The more examples there are of men choosing to deviate from the straight vertical career ladder – whether that is to take a greater share of childcare, or do other creative things –  the quicker both Principles –  Peter and Paula – will fade away.

And with that, a happy 2016 to you.



The divergence continues

Two separate items from this week which exactly confirm the divergence that is at the heart of the Paula Principle.

First the ‘End of Cycle’ report from UCAS shows women moving even further ahead.   (By the way, what does “UCAS’ stand for?  Universities Commission on Admissions and Statistics?  I couldn’t find it on their site.)    The entry rate for 18 year old women is 9.2 percentage points higher than for men, making them 35 per cent (proportionally) more likely to enter than men. These differences, both proportional and in percentage points, are the highest recorded.

Here’s the chart:

UCAS2015Another very significant point is that this effect is even stronger when it comes to disadvantaged groups.  Women from poorer backgrounds were 52 per cent more likely to enter than men in 2015.

On almost the same day, Ann Francke of the Chartered Management Institute gave evidence to the Commons Select Committee on Women and Equality.  She pointed out that the gender pay gap for women over 40 is 35%.  Not only that, but it’s going in the wrong direction – it’s higher now than it was 10 years ago.   Gender equality is low when young women and men enter the labour market.  But it grows as they get older – and leaps up after a couple of decades.

These two trends encapsulate what the PP is about.



EQ and PP

Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, caused quite a stir last week with his speech to the TUC on how many jobs might be taken over by robots.  This was a typical report, from The Times:

“The robots are coming – and they may take 15 million British jobs, says the Bank of England’s chief economist. Andy Haldane told the Trade Union Congress yesterday that millions of jobs could be at risk of automation, with those most vulnerable working in the administrative, clerical and production sectors and among the low paid.”

Having also scared the accountants in the audience (though not many owned up to being in this profession), Haldane tempered his projections by reminding us how adaptable economies and labour forces had proved in the past.However, the TUC’s ‘storified’ version of Haldane’s talk, nifty though it is, gave only a partial account of what he said.  I was particularly struck by his comment on the changes in skill requirements which are likely to go along with the increasing presence of robots.

The areas where our mechanical friends are least likely to take over are the caring professions.  Even though (as the Japanese have shown) robots can help with some of the more mundane caring tasks, uncomplainingly, in general caring proprement dit requires humans, and humans with caring skills.  But it’s not only in these areas that we may see a change in the standard kinds of skills required.  Andy Haldane predicted a shift from IQ to EQ – not a wholesale shift, but a shift in the balance of skill packages.

EQ may still be a poorly understood concept (as, arguably, is IQ….).  I checked out how EQ is defined, and found this list on a HelpGuide, useful charity website devoted to mental health issues:

  • Self-awareness – You recognize your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior, know your strengths and weaknesses, and have self-confidence.
  • Self-management – You’re able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Social awareness – You can understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people, pick up on emotional cues, feel comfortable socially, and recognize the power dynamics in a group or organization.
  • Relationship management – You know how to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.


Pretty similar, in other words, to the ‘soft skills’ which we have been told for a long time now will be increasingly prized by employers.

The PP question, of course, is how far EQ/soft skills are more likely to be found in women than men – a question inviting stereotype-based responses, but the general conclusion is likely to be, quite a lot.  In other words, as well as women acquiring more of the formal qualifications signalling cognitive competence, they are more likely to be able to add to those the kinds of skills that the robots can’t get to. Ho hum.

Silos and Slaughter

I’ve been reading Gillian Tett’s new book, The Silo Effect. The basic argument is very simple: organisations fail because people work in silos which prevent them from sharing knowledge and ideas.  Tett illustrates this with examples from diverse corners of the business world:  the New York Fire Department, Sony, Apple and the Bank of England.

Her overall argument is compelling, and most of us who have worked in organisations will recognise its application. ( This is one of the reasons why the Peter Principle was so successful – people nod their heads in acknowledgement of a broad generalisation to their own experience.)   Sometimes, the silo construction is deliberate.  This does not only occur because there may be financial or career incentives for staff  to keep things to themselves. People refuse to share information because they are cussed, lazy, or just enjoy putting one over on their fellows.

Silo Effect

   Tett’s book is also a brazen plug for anthropologists.  As she explains, she was herself a fully trained anthropologist working in Tajikistan before she was, rather implausibly, recruited to the Financial Times.  She realised how her anthropological training – observing the ‘other’ – brought her insights into the ways the world of finance works – or doesn’t work.

   I buy almost all of her arguments.  Sometimes think she does a little too much of a selling job for her discipline ; it’s almost as if she’s constructing boundaries to mark it out as superior, which would be a little paradoxical, would it not…

I also think she lets off our financiers too lightly.  She makes the story of their involvement in selling huge excesses of sub-prime mortgages sound like an organisational issue, as if it had nothing to do with gross greed and arrogance.

But the PP-relevant question raised by her book is this:  is there any case for thinking that women are more likely to be silo-crossers than men are?   Of course this would be a crude generalisation.  You could argue  just the contrary, that men are more disposed  to risk crossing boundaries and breaching conventional divisions.  And yet I think there is a case to be made that women don’t naturally put things in separate boxes (e.g. their apparent distaste for binary, hard-logic divisions, and greater tolerance of ambiguity).  They are, maybe, more likely to think of  sharing information with colleagues.  They are, almost certainly, less driven by personal incentives.

.Slaughter book

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, is a very different book, but with interesting connections to Tett’s thesis.  Slaughter was already a high-flying professor at Princeton University when Hillary Clinton asked her to be director of policy planning at the State Department in 2009.  She served for two years, and then decide to return to Princeton at the end of her leave of absence.  So far so glittering, career-wise.  But Slaughter then wrote an article in Atlantic magazine, ‘”Why Women Can’t Have It All”, in which she said that a, perhaps the, main factor in her decision to return to academic life was the need to be with her teenage boys.  The older boy was showing signs of going off the rails, and the younger was not happy with her absence.  Despite having a husband who had the time, capacity and willingness to take on the main caring role, Slaughter decided her priority lay with her children.

The gender roof more or less fell in on her, with accusations of betraying her sex, setting the cause back and so on.  So she’s written this book, not so much as self-justification but in order to help others wrestling with decisions which, if not at the same exalted level, are nevertheless similar enough.  She draws on the very wide responses she had to her article and her subsequent speaking engagements to broaden out her arguments.   It’s a good read, with many telling insights.

There are direct connections with PP  and with the Tett book.  Chapter 5, ‘Is Managing Money Really Harder Than Managing Kids?’  is not a simple comparison of which type of activity is harder but explores what you might call the transferable skills involved in bringing up a family.   Slaughter is, naturally, arguing that men can learn to do more of the kid-management, just as women are doing more of the finance-management.  She cites studies showing that in finance especially male traders focus on short-term gains, whereas what is needed is long-term strategic thinking.  This is exactly the same line of thinking as Tett’s:  how organisations (public or private sector) can get a better balance in the range of skills they deploy.

Networks, homophily, social capital: it’s not even who you know…

PP factor 4:  women don’t have access to the same networks as men do, especially networks that include people working at higher occupational or organisational levels.  It’s what social capitalists call ‘linking social capital’ – the kind that links you in to people higher up the power hierarchy, in contrast to bonding SC (hooking up with people like you) or bridging SC  (connecting to people outside your own type, but not necessarily any higher up than you are).

Demonstrating this is something other people have done in far greater detail than I have been able to do.  Herminia Ibarra did this over 20 years ago in an interesting paper on ‘homophily’, based on research in the advertising industry .  Homophily is relates closely to bonding SC: we all tend to associate with people like ourselves, and this applies to gender as well.

Paul Seabright made the same point more generally in The War of the Sexes (Princeton UP, 2012):

“Both men and women display a preference for networking with member of their own sex….networking primarily with their own sex tends to shut women out of networks of power and influence.”

Common sense, maybe, but the myriad ways in which this works need exploring.  I recently came across an interesting addition to the literature, from Sterling Huang and Lily Fang of Insead, with the nifty link title of  Your Rolodex matters but by how much depends on your gender. They looked at the world of Wall St analysts, and in particular at how far network connections helped women and men achieve the prized AA status, signalling that their colleagues estimate them to be a star analyst.

Huang and Fang find, to their surprise, that men and women seem equally well connected.  But the connections seem to pay off less well for women in enabling them to achieve AA status.   There are fewer women at senior levels, so less opportunity for upwards homophily (you can get into some dizzy vocabulary doing this kind of work….).  But their conclusion is:

“On the one hand, we should celebrate the fact that outright gender discrimination in education, hiring and promotions are on the decline. In our data, female analysts are not under-represented in the AA analyst pool. On the other hand, the evidence clearly points to a more subtle—yet perhaps more insidious—form of gender bias: men and women may be evaluated using different criteria in our subjective mind.”

So traditional networking may not work as well for women – though it’s still an important route, and organisations such as Women Like Us do a great job in bringing people together.  A recent Guardian post, from the useful Women in Leadership page, explores this further.  Once again, how meritocracy works depends on who decides on what counts as merit.  (It’s worth making this point on the hundredth anniversary of Michael Young’s birth.)

I think it’s probably true that networks are equally important in other less rarified occupations, and at many other organisational levels – too often neglected.  How much does knowing others matter when it comes to getting a promotion at mid-level or below?


Malala working for free(dom), and negotiations

I went with my daughter yesterday to see the film He Named Me Malala.  It’s an extraordinary mix: the unique, improbable story of Malala’s path to the Nobel Prize (with detail of the titanium plate they had to insert into her head after the shooting, and all the efforts to recover the use of her muscles), and the her apparent capacity to maintain the life of an ordinary schoolgirl with two brothers, in a Birmingham home.  I found it moving, and for once inspirational is an appropriate description.

The film is founded on the way her father encouraged her, and other girls, to carry on with their schooling.  He poses the question of whether this was the right thing to do, knowing now the danger it placed her in.  She answers him by saying that what he did was to give her her name;  she made the choices after that.  It’s a remarkable relationship of trust and pride.

Malala crusades across the world for girls’ education.  We see her teaching in an African classroom; she uses the whiteboard confidently to explain to the children (boys and girls) about Pakistan’s economy and geography.  At the other end of the spectrum, she lectures, equally confidently, to the UN general assembly.  She has a natural flair for rhetoric.


Of course the global task is to achieve gender parity at school level.  This is where the huge inequalities lie, with female literacy levels still way behind.  But what happens when parity is reached?  We know, as surely as anything, that girls will carry on to outdo boys –  in the educational sphere.  And then?

Which brings us to Working for Free:  yesterday was the day where the gender pay gap kicks in, so that from now to the end of the year women, on average, are in a sense working for nothing.  Naming the day is a brilliant way of bringing home the inequalities of the labour market.  Even when women are equally – or, as they increasingly are, more highly – qualified, the material pay-offs don’t seem to be there.   So what to do?

I’ve been reading quite an old book called Women Don’t Ask, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, which details all the research that shows how women don’t negotiate deals for themselves at work.  This very much what underpins PP factor 3:  psychological factors, and lack of confidence in their abilities and experience.   The book focusses on enabling women to negotiate their way to better deals – not only in pay and promotions, but also working hours and other aspects of the job.  It does a useful job in covering the different angles, and in showing women ways of upping their negotiating capacity.

But now here’s a challenging post from Penelope Trunk, on why women shouldn’t bother negotiating.  She’s just telling it like it is, but says she expects to get clobbered for it, and the responses prove her right.  For me the interesting question is not so much how to enable women to negotiate more – though they often should – but how to operate on the other side;  in other words, how to change the reward systems so they don’t depend as much on people’s capacity to ask, insist, bang the table.  But I’d love to hear Malala’s views on negotiation.



Understanding fracking and climate change

Professor Averil Macdonald is the chairwoman of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, and emeritus professor of science engagement at the University of Reading.  She’s just hit the headlines because she’s attributed the fact that more women than men oppose fracking to their lack of scientific understanding.  Apparently only 31% of women think tracking should be allowed, compared with 58% of men.  According to Prof Macdonald, that’s because they don’t understand the science.

She is certainly right that more women stop science at 16.  And it’s quite striking that 85% of men correctly identified shale gas as the fossil fuel which is produced by tracking, compared with 65% of women.  The question that interests me is how far it’s factual understanding that matters here.  Macdonald is quoted as saying:

“Why are men persuaded?  That’s because an awful lot of facts have been put forward….[men] will say ‘fair enough, understand’ . But women, for whatever reason, have not been persuaded by the facts.”

By coincidence I’ve been reading Mike Hulme’s brilliant book Why we Disagree about Climate Change.  What Hulme shows is that our understanding of these issues – climate change generally, or tracking – is conditioned by a whole swathe of factors:  how the issue is framed;  what the perceived risks are, what our value systems are, and so on.    He shows how many interpretations there are even of the word ‘climate’, and how these have changed over time.  Did you know that John Tyndall got onto greenhouse gases in 1859, and  in 1896 Svante Arrhenius calculated (by hand) changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere?  But of course they could only get a partial handle on these issues and their impact on the climate.

M Hulme book          ‘Fracking’ can probably be defined more clearly and certainly than climate.  But the key message from Hulme’s book is that the idea of a rational linear process, from factual understanding to agreed conclusions, is often unrealistic – even amongst objectively well qualified participants.   That’s a sobering thought for all of us who like to put our faith in scientific processes (and talking of faith, it’s interesting that Hulme wears his Christian faith on his sleeve). So the idea that if women arrived at a higher level of factual knowledge about tracking they’d all troop into the yes lobby just doesn’t stack up.  Values, judgements on the seriousness of perceived risks and, yes, emotions, will continue to play a big part.

Macdonald does express disappointment that there are so few women in the industry, and she is acting valuably as a model for others to follow her into the sciences.  Public engagement in science is a really valuable field.    But I think her real contribution to the PP debate may be to make us think more about why some positions are accepted and others aren’t – not only on specific ‘scientific’ issues, but on a whole range of judgements, including in the workplace.  Of course good factual knowledge is essential – or at least, as good an informational base as you can get – but ‘facts’ are not always what they seem.    Maybe we need a Mrs Gradgrind to give us an alternative view.



Minding the gap

Recent DfE figures confirm how far girls are ahead of boys in their learning, and how early this starts.  74% of the youngest children achieved their expected level of development, compared with 59% of boys.  The figures for specific areas were as follows:

- writing:  78/64

- reading:  82/71

- arithmetic: 81/74.

The Guardian‘s headline read:  ” Girls starting school outperform boys in every learning goal”, as they do throughout their educational careers.   The same paper carried a profile yesterday of  Becky Francis, an education adviser.   According to the interview, Francis has argued for 20 years that too much attention has been paid ‘to a relatively small gender gap, which doesn’t seem to have had much impact on later careers and life outcomes”.   The lack of impact is precisely why I think the gap does matter  - though I completely agree with Francis that social class differentials are a much more important issue in education.  But the gender differences should make us think hard about why educational achievement is valued so differently when it appears in different bodies in the workplace.

Today also saw the publication of the latest Sex & Power report, on political representation.  Now politics is not (yet) a profession which formally requires educational qualifications – though some would argue that it has gone too far down that road, with  a professionalisation that narrows down its experience and representativeness.   So the PP arguments apply somewhat differently here:  it is not because women are better qualified that we should be seeing more of them  in Parliament.  Nevertheless, the figures are relevant.

There are now more women in Parliament than ever before: 29% of MPs in Westminster, up from 22% in 2010.  Labour  comes out ahead with 43% of their MPs as women, followed by the SNP at 36%.  The Tories struggled up to 21%, from 16% in 2010.  The Lib Dems electoral debacle has led to gender embarrassment, as they score zero.  The Greens and UKIP are appropriate mirrors to each other as single-member, and thus single-sex, parties.  UKIP was thoroughly outflanked in unreconstructionism by the DUP, which also scored zero by dint of fielding no women candidates.

Seven of the new  22-strong Cabinet are women,  fulfilling the Prime Minister’s pledge to have a third of his cabinet women.  On the other hand only 6 of the 27 policy select committees are chaired by women.  Overall, the report notes that the UK has shot up the international table on women’s parliamentary representation, from 67th to 37th.   So there is progress, at least on the formal front.  The report identifies a number of areas, such as working hours, where the nature of parliamentary work needs to change if this is going to continue.

And continue it should.  The Women’s Equality Party wants it to continue to arithmetical equality – but no further, if I’ve correctly understood its aims and philosophy.   Regular readers of the blog will know that I am very opposed to 50/50 as a principle, because it goes against all our understanding of gender not as something which differentiates into two discrete categories.  It is a good idea, in politics as elsewhere, to have a clear idea of what would be an acceptable threshold, upper and lower.  I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a majority of women MPs in due course.

Time is of the essence.  I had a fascinating discussion recently with a (female) former City lawyer.  She told me that when she’d been working in the City some 10 years ago, her firm had about 17% women partners.  She had been horrified to discover, on returning for an anniversary celebration, that it had moved up 1%.  She said, very clearly, that at that level she had often been in a minority of one, and even where there was more than one woman they were too few to make up a critical mass.  Not that they wanted to act en bloc, but in so far as gender mattered, this was inadequate as a threshold.  And at that rate, it will take a century (cf my blog on Jonathan Sumption – what is it about the law?

Parliament may be moving faster than the law.  But in any case, the important thing is to ask ourselves why gaps exist, and why they matter.


The long and the short of it: differentiating part-timers

I went yesterday to the launch of an important new book, Unequal Britain at Work.  Using surveys that go back about 20 years and more it documents changes in the way we work and how it is rewarded:  not just how we are paid, but  the quality of the job, measured in terms of intensity, discretion and so on.

A crucial feature of the book, and of the presentations made by its editors, Francis Green, Alan Felstead and Duncan Gallie, is the attention it pays to groups usually considered marginal, especially  part-timers and the self-employed.  One of the overall conclusions is that there has been a fair degree of convergence on non-pay issues (in striking contrast to the rising inequality of pay overall).  Some groups have  done better on some aspects, others on other aspects.   There is no overall cumulation of disadvantage,  but a mixed picture for most groups of progress in some areas but retreat in others .   So it goes against the idea that there is a growing ‘precariat’, in the UK at least; or rather, it means that the precariat is smaller, but those who are in it are more intensely disadvantaged.

The chapters on gender, by Joanne Lindley, and on part-time working, by Tracey Warren and Clare Lyonette, are particularly relevant for the Paula Principle.   The latter makes a particular advance by distinguishing between part-timers who work 20-29 hours and those who work under 20 hours.  Any dividing line is arbitrary, but this is a big improvement on lumping all part-timers together.

Warren and Lyonette show that the ‘long pt’ category has been growing, so that over half of all part-timers are now working more than 20 hours.  These are now quite likely to be working in higher level positions – by 2012 36% of them were in such jobs.  They were very likely to report themselves as working very hard, though not quite as likely as women working full-time.  This is especially true for women graduates.

Women part-timers still work in jobs which require fewer educational qualifications than full-timers.  But this gap has been shrinking.  The gap between the two (measured by a standard score) has gone down from 51%  in 1986 to 22% in 2012.    On the other hand, more part-timers are working below their potential, i.e. they hold higher qualifications than the job they are working in requires.   41% of all part-timers were underemployed;  this figure rises to almost half of all those working short hours.

In other word:  part-timers are increasingly well-qualified but underemployed.  And although ‘short’ part-timers are less well qualified than long part-timers or those working full-time, they are still more likely be working under their potential.  Further  confirmation of the PP, as if we needed it.