One of the unintended consequences of feminism — at least I hope it was unintended — has been to marginalise men. Feminism has in practice been a long march not just towards emancipation but also against masculinity. Last week, in a new sign of this, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (a woman) announced that young women were now earning more on average than young men. Among women aged 22-29, the gender pay gap has been reversed, partly because these women are better qualified than men of their age. The lead that these young women now have is still slight, but it is unmistakably there, and it is the reversal of a trend.
This is not good news. Surely it is not what feminists fought for. The battle cry was for equality with men — including equal pay — not for victory over them. When I was a student and older feminists were asked how men could be persuaded to give up so much and join forces with women, they always said firmly that feminism was in men’s own best interests. I wondered then and I wonder now.
However right and proper it may be, nobody can pretend it is in a man’s interest to give up his time in the football stadium, pub or corridors of power to go to the launderette or the sandpit instead. Nobody can pretend it is in a man’s interest to have positive discrimination at work in favour of women, which is now almost universal.
There is a bitterness that dares not speak its name among men who have been passed over in favour of less capable women for at least two decades now. Things have been changing hugely in women’s favour. It is hardly in young men’s interest, as an indirect result of years of feminist agitation, to be paid less than young women.
Admittedly women have yet to break the glass ceiling in banks and boardrooms at the top end of the pay scale, but there is evidence that many well-qualified women choose not to do that kind of work. Across the rest of the ordinary population, women are, apparently, outdoing men. That can’t be right, unless one assumes that men are less intelligent and less capable, or otherwise less desirable, than women.
The explosion of university places in the past couple of decades has favoured not men but women: broadly it is middle-class women, rather than less privileged men, who have taken up the new opportunities of a university education. For some time significantly more women than men have been entering all kinds of higher education, and now it seems that women outnumber men at every type of university and are 25% more likely to get into university than men, according to figures published last year by the Labour government. As David Willetts, then shadow universities minister, said: “The gap between women and men is growing ever wider.”
For many years boys did much better than girls at exams at every level. But with school reforms, and what some people, including me, would call the feminisation of education, girls are doing much better. Girls have now increased their lead over boys in getting the best GCSE results: this year only about 20% of boys got an A* or A in their GCSE exams, compared with 27% of girls. This is an accelerating trend, which started about 20 years ago — about the time that girl-friendly coursework and soft subjects were introduced.
The only recent change in boys’ favour is at A-level: having for years outshone girls there and at degree level, boys fell back some time ago, again at the time of the dumbing down of A-levels and the inflation of grades at university. Recently, though, they have been closing the gap, increasing their share of As and A*s. The number of A* grades awarded to boys rose to 8.2% last year, while it fell for girls to the same percentage. Boys have also closed the gap to almost nothing in hard subjects such as maths and sciences.
The perception remains, nonetheless, that boys generally do less well than girls — less well at school, less well at getting jobs, less well at being emotionally intelligent, less well at social and workplace co-operation — and are generally speaking more of a problem.
I was horrified when I heard my nine-year-old daughter firmly telling my four-year-old son that boys do all the bad things in the world, and are rough and selfish. Girls, she assured him, were good. She was only mouthing the politically correct attitude of the time. People had suddenly discovered testosterone, the male hormone, as the root of all social evil, competition, teenage violence and war — all attributable to men. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings comes the cant of the day.
Nobody can seriously suppose that boys are significantly less intelligent than girls. There is no inherent reason to expect worse performances on average from boys than from girls at GCSE or A-level. So something is going wrong for boys. Just as girls were discriminated against in the past by misogynist teachers and exam markers — long ago the marking of 11-plus exams, in which girls did marginally better than boys, was officially “adjusted” to restore the “balance”, on the premise that girls were more mature at 11 than boys — so now boys seem to be the victims of some sort of discrimination, whether conscious or accidental.
It is odd that so little fuss is made about all this. Perhaps people are tired of the gender wars. Perhaps men and boys have internalised the prevalent idea that somehow masculinity is rather a nuisance: aggressive, impulsive, selfish with a poor attention span, and self-evidently the stuff of feral youth and violent crime. The notion that manliness was valuable — that a manly man would protect his wife and children and provide for them — has been undermined by the freedom of women to manage quite well (apparently but not actually) without them, indeed very much better without them at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, since this country’s benefit payments could have been specifically designed to make men redundant, and feel it.
Now young women are beginning to earn more per hour than men of their age.
Imagine how that must feel to any young man trying to prove himself as an adult, a lover or a father: the effort would hardly be worth it. If this trend spreads to other generations and to other pay grades, we will soon have generations of deeply disaffected and angry men. That was not, surely, what generations of feminists had in mind.