‘Feminism trumps egalitarianism’ only if Willetts’s soundbite trumps evidence

David Willetts's soundbite that 'feminism trumped egalitarianism' is refuted by Declan Gaffney, with analysis showing how both work together for social mobility.

David Willetts’s comments on the relationship between feminism and social inequality attracted condemnation from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and Conservative feminists.   

However, this is how the more sympathetic Daily Telegraph reported Willetts’s argument:

Asked what was to blame for the lack of social mobility, Mr Willetts 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…

“One of the things that happened over that period was that the entirely admirable transformation of opportunities for women 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 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.

“It is delicate territory because it is not a bad thing that women had these opportunities, 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.”

While the ‘feminism trumped egalitarianism’ soundbite is provocative, there is nothing controversial in arguing that changes in mothers’ employment have had a significant impact on income distribution. Dual-earner couples have very low risks of income poverty compared to other household types, and because couples account for a very large share of the working age population, their incomes also have a big influence on the median income against which poverty is measured.

This can mean that an increase in the employment of mothers in couples can contribute to increases in inequality and even in poverty, independently of other trends in employment and earnings, as the income of other households falls further away from the average.

This will tend to happen if the increase in maternal employment is skewed towards those who are already in stronger economic positions: if on the other hand maternal employment grows more evenly across social classes, the effect on the income distribution will tend to be equalising.

In fact, international comparisons indicate that despite marked differences in women’s employment by social class in most countries, the equalising effect dominates, as the chart below adapted from OECD data showing the relationship between child poverty and maternal employment illustrates:

Maternal-employment-and-child-poverty-in-OECD-countries
The general pattern is that mothers’employment reduces child poverty: in statistical terms, the negative correlation between child poverty and maternal employment across this sample of countries is a very strong -0.64 (the maximum value for the negative correlation would be -1.0 and the minimum 0.0). 

As child poverty is associated with income inequality more generally, it follows almost trivially that higher maternal employment is associated with lower rather than higher levels of inequality.

At the same time it is clear that the effect of mothers’ employment on poverty and inequality varies from country to country. Social class differences in employment are the main factor in explaining this. The UK has relatively low employment for women with lower qualifications, only 55% compared for example to 67% in Denmark and 76% in France (data from the Luxembourg Income Study here: //www.lisproject.org/key-figures/key-figures.htm). Even more importantly when it comes to the effect of women’s employment on inequality, the employment gap between women with the lowest qualifications and those with mid-level qualifications is very high in the UK at 20 percentage points, exceeded only by the United States, Ireland and Hungary. (See the very full account by Susan Harkness here //www.lisproject.org/conference/papers/harkness.pdf)

So the problem in the UK is not that mothers’ employment increased over the last thirty years, but that it did not increase evenly across social classes. While this is also the case for other OECD countries, the UK showed a more marked pattern than most.

This aspect is referred to in Willetts’s comments, but in terms of a potentially misleading contrast between ‘two-earner couples, both of whom were well-educated, compared with often workless households where nobody was educated’ – ignoring both the large number of working poor couple families, who account for 46% of UK child poverty, and the 54% of lone parents who are in employment, who also face high poverty risks.

The fissure between middle and low income groups in the UK can not be equated with that between the employed and the workless: it also runs between different groups of working households, reflecting the social class gradient in household-level employment.

Feminism didn’t trump egalitarianism: the deteriorating position of lower income groups in the UK during the 1980s and early 1990s trumped both of them. Countries with a strongly egalitarian and feminist policy focus promoted increases in women’s employment without suffering the UK’s extraordinary rise in inequality at the lower end of the income distribution, which Labour with its strong focus on family employment only partly reversed.

Following Willetts’s logic, rather than his selective and one-sided comments, we need more feminism, not less.

• Update: For the effect on the relationship between mother’s employment rate and poverty once outliers such as Scandinavian countries and the USA are taken out, see this note.

46 Responses to “‘Feminism trumps egalitarianism’ only if Willetts’s soundbite trumps evidence”

  1. Alex

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  2. Sam the Drummer

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  3. Haidee

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  4. Alison Charlton

    Ah, evidence. If only Willetts had thought of that. RT @leftfootfwd 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism'-evidence against: //bit.ly/gD2JbT

  5. Amster

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  6. Mary Wollstonecraft

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  7. Paris Gourtsoyannis

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  8. Leonie Northedge

    .@leftfootfwd lays the smackdown on David Willets's 'feminism trumps egalitarianism' rubbish: //bit.ly/gD2JbT

  9. Aidan Skinner

    @itsmotherswork huh, thought 1st FT read free? Here's a @leftfootfwd one defending his point but not him, //s.coop/willetslff

  10. Pascal Terjan

    RT @leonieleonie: .@leftfootfwd lays the smackdown on David Willets's 'feminism trumps egalitarianism' rubbish: //bit.ly/gD2JbT

  11. Pascal Terjan

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  12. Mary Wollstonecraft

    #notetofemales RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  13. Jessica Thompson

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  14. Women'sHistoryMonth

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  15. x

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  16. Alison Price

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  17. lynda marshall clark

    Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  18. Elly M

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  19. Charlotte Runcie

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  20. Jo

    RT @wollstonecraftm: RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  21. Lorraine Dixon

    RT @leonieleonie: .@leftfootfwd lays the smackdown on David Willets's 'feminism trumps egalitarianism' rubbish: //bit.ly/gD2JbT

  22. Virginia Moffatt

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  23. Elizabeth Eva Leach

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  24. Itsmotherswork

    @lisaansell The @leftfootfwd article: //t.co/Kp2P2xd”

  25. Itsmotherswork

    @KsLegalMouth have a look at this for a broader perspective. //t.co/Kp2P2xd”

  26. Dave Citizen

    Willetts’ comments are an attempt to control the debate about Britain’s problems with extreme inequality, a debate that has real potential to boost Labour’s position, to make our economy more competitive, but also to threaten powerful Tory interests. He and other Tories know that Britain’s majority working population would be far better off if they chose to bring down levels of inequality to match countries like Germany or Sweden. But this would mean real changes that would hit many super-rich and powerful vested interests. Lets face it, when 0.6% of the population own 69% of our land and they are mostly the same families that owned it in the 19th century (Independent Newspaper), you know only a decisive break with the past stands a chance of bringing us majority prosperity into the 21st century.

  27. Sue Marsh

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  28. Naomi

    RT @suey2y: RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  29. Claire French

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  30. Sue Marsh

    @lisaansell Did you see RT @leftfootfwd: //bit.ly/dIiZnO I thought you'd like to see a passionate rebuttal of Mr Willetts…..

  31. Alison Charlton

    @gabyhinsliff Have you read? @leftfootfwd: Feminism trumps egalitarianism only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  32. Chris & Murphy

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  33. Andy Bean

    RT @suey2y: RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm

  34. James Doran

    ‘Feminism trumps egalitarianism’ only if Willetts’s soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gpdseY

  35. Malcolm Evison

    RT @oranjd: ‘Feminism trumps egalitarianism’ only if Willetts’s soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gpdseY

  36. Jon Purdom

    How Governments deal with criticism of their policies

    1. Government being criticised because of cuts – blame last government for doing much the same as you would have done.
    2. Government losing votes to UKIP and BNP – play race card and blame multicultualism, promise curbs on immigration
    3. Government criticised by public sector – privatise public sector
    4. Government criticised by unions – call unions “enemies of enterprise” and think up anti-union laws
    5. Government criticised over number of unemployed – blame women
    6. Government finds it has alienated the entire electorate – try “1” again. If that fails try going to war with someone and hope it works like it did in 1982 for Thatcher.

  37. Kathryn Sheppard

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence //bit.ly/gIA8zm #fem2

  38. Mr. Sensible

    I think Willets’s comments were nothing short of a disgrace.

    Would be interested to see what impact his policy on tuition fees has on social mobility…

  39. Daniel Pitt

    RT @leftfootfwd: 'Feminism trumps egalitarianism' only if Willetts's soundbite trumps evidence: //bit.ly/gD2JbT writes Declan Gaffney

  40. Lee

    Two points here; first the graph measures poverty rates of children and I’m assuming these merely refer to financial poverty – children might live in a family that doesn’t have much money but may well be better off in other ways due to the extra time spent with them by their mother.

    Second, I’m convinced there’s an important class element to feminism – the main beneficiaries seem to be middle-class women and the main losers are working-class people of both genders.

  41. Declan Gaffney

    Prudence would caution against disagreeing with @CJFDillow //t.co/R6JOto2F This is why I think he's wrong //t.co/7QuCvH8G

  42. Chris Dillow

    Prudence would caution against disagreeing with @CJFDillow //t.co/R6JOto2F This is why I think he's wrong //t.co/7QuCvH8G

  43. Rick

    Prudence would caution against disagreeing with @CJFDillow //t.co/R6JOto2F This is why I think he's wrong //t.co/7QuCvH8G

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