David Willets – yeah kinda, but not really

Image credit here.

I’m a little sceptical of how the economics of David Willets’ comments are being reported in these two pieces so I’m going to save my analysis for Willets’ actual quotes.

David Willets, British politician with the Conservative Party and UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, got this partly right. Feminism has indeed led to an increase in income inequality in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom (and the United States, too), where some households have flourished with the advent of dual high incomes and others have not had the same advantages.

The Conservative minister made his comments before the launch of the government’s social mobility strategy. Looking at reasons for social mobility, he said: “The feminist revolution in its first round effects was probably the key factor. Feminism trumped egalitarianism. It is not that I am against feminism, it’s just that is probably the single biggest factor.”

The egalitarianism that Willets is referring to was when every married man was awarded his very own free house-keeper for his home. It was quite equalising – wives performed the same child-rearing/house-keeping tasks for their household regardless of the income level of the men they married. In other words, they all contributed labour of roughly equal value to each man’s household – high-income and low-income men, alike. Nice for men but not always so great for women, who weren’t entitled at the time to own any of their own contributions to the household.

“It is delicate territory, because it is not a bad thing that women had these opportunities,” he said. “But it widened the gap in household incomes, because you suddenly had two-earner couples, both of whom were well-educated, compared with often workless households where nobody was educated.”

By the way, don’t you love the way he phrased that bit about his support for women’s liberation – not that it’s a good thing but just that “it is not a bad thing” – you can just picture him wincing as he says it?

The newspaper reported Mr Willetts as saying there had been an “entirely admirable transformation of opportunities for women” which meant that “with a lot of the expansion of education in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the first beneficiaries were the daughters of middle-class families who had previously been excluded from educational opportunities”.


And he added: “If you put that with what is called ‘assortative mating’ – that well-educated women marry well-educated men – this transformation of opportunities for women ended up magnifying social divides.

And now picture me wincing at that ‘assortative mating’ term.

Anyway, back to the discussion. What is Willets missing? There has been a transformation of opportunities for women, but not for all women. When we examine women’s progress we are mostly concerning ourselves with market income. With women entering paid employment household income has risen. And market income has become more equally distributed across the sexes. Women have gone from earning pretty much zero income to earning wages getting closer to, but not equal to, those of men. But not all women benefitted from the beautiful dance of feminism and capitalism. Poor women haven’t done so great. This is for several reasons, the biggest one being that all women are still forced to specialise in unpaid caring work. Women on higher incomes can buy their way out of some of the problems, poor women cannot.

What happened to all that child-rearing/house-keeping work when women got feminism and went off to work? It didn’t vanish, we just treat it as if it did – there are economic estimates that calculate unpaid work to amount to somewhere between a third and one half of all the hours of work performed, which is an awful lot of work to be made invisible. Some women stayed in the home and continued to specialise in this work. They have had mixed results. Their lot has improved in that they’re at least entitled to own a portion of household production but they’ve been disadvantaged by the low status given to care work and by the vulnerability that follows those who specialise in work outside the marketplace.

For those women who work outside the home, they have found themselves squeezed by the combined and competing demands of the workplace and the home. This wouldn’t be such a squeeze if the workplace model weren’t still built around the idea of a male breadwinner and a wife at home. Women with high-paid jobs (in high income households) have tended to outsource tasks and have paid others (mostly women, and in the case of the UK, often immigrant women) to do these tasks for their household. Women from low-income households have it particularly hard – they pay for work that used to be done inside the home for free by the wife while also not earning a hell of a lot of money. But it is the women in these households who overwhelmingly take the brunt of that pinch, through their disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work and the disadvantages this then creates for them in their paid work. This is where income inequality really bears its teeth.

So, this bit from Willets?

“Feminism trumped egalitarianism,” he said, adding that women who would otherwise have been housewives had taken university places and well-paid jobs that could have gone to ambitious working-class men.

Not so much correct. Feminism might have contributed to income inequality over the last couple of decades but how the world responded to rising income inequality isn’t the fault of feminism. Regressive tax systems, the global movement of manufacturing jobs, technological shifts to employment, the dismantling of welfare provisions, and failures to invest sufficiently in public education are all significant factors impeding the social mobility of blue-collar men that have nothing to do with feminism.

The idea that women are taking work from men is a flawed one. For starters, there isn’t a static pool of jobs. Also, the social mobility of blue-collar men was just as much about men rising up the ranks from factory floor to middle management as it was about them taking up university places. And both those job pools (ie. on the factory floor and in middle management) are drying up in developed economies like the United Kingdom. Employment opportunities for working-class women haven’t been shrinking the way they are for men because women are taking up job opportunities in the service sector and in low-paid care work.

Now, speaking of all this, here is the feminist economist, Nancy Folbre delivering a memorial lecture on ‘Women’s Work And The Limits of Capitalism’. It’s fantastic. You should watch it. We should all be talking about it.

It’s also long (though the questions she is asked at the end by the audience aren’t brilliant so you can skip those and also, the introductions at the beginning of the clip go on a bit, so, Folbre doesn’t actually commence her lecture until the 8 minute mark of the video so you can skip the first bit of the clip, too).

By the way, I have summarised, quoted and paraphrased Folbre’s lecture here if you are unable to view the video but would like to know what she is on about.

(Cross-posted at blue milk).

Categories: economics, gender & feminism, parenting, work and family


4 replies

  1. bluemilk. How can I thank you enough for this video? I haven’t seen anything on the subject of capitalism and feminism for ages!
    Thank you so very much!

  2. Goodness me, us terrible women taking opportunities from working class men, instead of upper class men excluding working class men as it should be.

  3. Mary Tracy – Nancy Folbre seriously rocks. Enjoy!

  4. Thanks for writing this, blue milk. I’ve been thinking about what I agreed and disagreed with in Willett’s statements but couldn’t manage to pull it together.
    It isn’t just about who goes to university and assortative mating. It’s about a whole system of white collar jobs disappearing alongside the blue collar jobs as industries move out of developed countries to exploit cheaper workforces. Skilled trades and middle management jobs disappearing is not the fault of feminism.

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