The Universities Minister David Willetts (aka "Two Brains") has found himself in political hot water this week for daring to suggest that a lack of social mobility within the male population over the last 40 years is a direct consequence of feminism. His argument appears to be that greater equality between the sexes has led to women, who would otherwise have been housewives, taking university places and well-paid jobs that instead would have gone to ambitious working-class men. There may be some truth to this analysis, but is this an example of a decline in social mobility? I would argue not for two reasons.
Firstly, because I would argue that feminism IS a form of social mobility. Before feminism, a woman's only hope of social advancement was by marriage. Now with feminism she has at least a chance of improving her lot by virtue of her own ability, just as any man has.
Secondly, but more controversially perhaps, I actually see very little evidence that there has ever really been any real social mobility in this country. This may be a highly contentious view, but it is one that I believe is consistent with the analysis of David Willetts in regards to the effects of gender equality on the life chances of men.
The conventional view of Britain's recent social history is that in the immediate aftermath of WWII Britain experienced a period of sustained improvement in social mobility. During this period members of the lower classes were able to gain access to better paid jobs, and so move up the social ladder. This upward mobility has generally been attributed to the improved access to education for the poor and the raising of the school leaving age following the 1944 Education Act, and in particular to the role of grammar schools in allowing the brightest children of the poor to receive the same high quality education as the children of the rich. Consequently, the subsequent introduction of comprehensive schools in the 1970s at the expense of grammars, and the perception of a decline in social mobility in the years that followed, has been seen as evidence of the superior value of grammar schools in fostering improvements in social mobility, meritocracy, and egalitarianism. There is, though, an alternative argument: that social mobility never existed at all.
Under this alternative view the growth in social mobility that was allegedly observed in the 50's and 60's was instead a manifestation of an entirely different phenomenon: social expansion (for want of a better term). This period was characterized by massive technological changes, and therefore also a change in the nature of work. As more jobs were created that needed specialist skills and a high level of education, employers were forced to look beyond the confines of their existing and narrow pool of talent in order to fill these new posts. Thus the perceived rise in social mobility was a direct consequence of changes to the labour market, and the inability of the upper classes to breed fast enough to fill the growing numbers of prestige jobs that were now being created. Employers were, therefore, reluctantly forced to extend their recruitment policies to include the children of the hoi polloi and other assorted 'oiks' that had previously been overlooked as being wholly unsuitable for such lofty positions of responsibility.
Unfortunately, once the expansion in new places at the top table of society ground to a halt, then so too did social mobility. Thus, social mobility was not driven by merit in this instance, for if it were then it would have continued indefinitely and those moving up in society would have seen equal numbers of the upper classes passing them in the opposite direction. No, instead it was driven be a temporary expansion in places. That is why it would be better termed as 'social expansion'.
In this context, the impact that feminism has had on social mobility according to David Willetts can be seen as being nothing more than an extension of what has always happened. It has merely provided an additional pool of socially acceptable labour for the upper class elite to tap into before they countenance expanding their social horizons. So in this regard I agree with Willetts. Unfortunately, it does not follow that without feminism social mobility would have improved in this country. Perhaps the illusion of it would, but not the reality.
Of course the ultimate myth is that full social mobility can ever be achieved by improvements to education alone. How can a more egalitarian society ever be achieved if the best jobs are not given to people based on their ability, but rather on the wealth of their parents or on their political affiliations? Actions such as this can only lead to a society where the division of wealth and power is demarcated ever more strongly along class and party political lines.