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.