(old) lags, and continuing gaps

What is a ‘reasonable’ pace of change?  This is a more basic political question than it might appear. Classically it separates out the revolutionaries from the gradualists. After all, the literal origin of the Fabian movement lies exactly in its gradualism – but Fabians would still see gradual steps as a route to radical reform.

On any given issue, there might be quite a lot of consensus on the direction of progress, but serious disagreement on how quickly things can happen (cf the Church of England’s recent writhings on women bishops). As Carolyn Heilbron observed, reflecting on a different institution:
“Women have legally transformed the marriage relation in under 150 years: we must ask whether that transformation is not in itself amazing, or whether, on the other hand, it has not, as transformations go, been laggardly.”

Her tongue was just maybe a little in her cheek, but the point is a real one. This came home strongly to me recently. I circulated some draft chapters of the PP book for comment, and one of the responses came as follows:

“Anything I say is in the context of my great age (78)! . . . . . . . and the enormous changes I have seen in my lifetime. I know you feel that change in women’s job opportunities is being very slow, but to me it’s been speedy. When I graduated from university in the mid 50s – the future only held secretarial, teaching, social work or medical, legal work (or marriage and children with a very part-time job) – no thought of work in the financial or business worlds – scientists had other opportunities, but from your graphs I see that their promotion seemed to go downhill. I’m constantly impressed with the young women I see and hear now on radio/TV who are able to hold their own in discussions and who are obviously in positions of power and influence (very rare in the 1950s, although there were some notable exceptions).”

This is interesting for several reasons. Not least, a longer time horizon maybe gives a very different perspective on what has and has not been achieved. It can, of course, serve to underline how slow progress has been, as well as the reverse.

I’m hooked on the prospect that we could visualise the pace and direction of change much more effectively than we usually do. I mean physically visualise, showing trends in ways which would enable us to point to them, discuss their slopes and gradations, and so be able to decide better what is happening – including whether it all points in the same (forwards) direction.

Of course good visualisations already exist. But it seems to me particularly important when we are thinking about changes in the relative positions of different groups. A classic case is access to higher education: the gender pattern has changed dramatically in the last two decades as the numbers of women zoom past those of men; but the class pattern has remained stubbornly resistent to change. These different dynamics have radically altered the overall profile of inequality in HE.

In the PP context, speed and horizons are very relevant. I raise particularly the question of how long we might reasonably expect it to be before women’s greater educational achievements show up in earnings and careers. Here’s how I’ve put the question of ‘lag’:

“For example, as more women graduate from medical school it will take just a few years for this to show up in the balance between female and male junior doctors, but a good deal more time for it to change the gender balance amongst senior consultants. The day may come when you are told that you are about to meet a top specialist and, because it is common knowledge that most specialists are women, expect a woman to walk in the room; but it will take a while yet . Similarly we can expect more women to graduate as lawyers, but the trudge to judge will take a lot longer. That such lags should occur is natural; the question is how long a lag between educational achievement and career results is ‘reasonable’ – not for the individual, but for the sex.” If you want more on this, have a look at the draft which I’ve posted in Samples.

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