Saturday 28 August 2010

Girls, exams and employment: a race to the bottom

Young women are doing disproportionately well in this recession. Girls have outperformed boys at GCSE and A-level for the tenth consecutive year, and along with the cursory smattering of articles bemoaning the educational fate of our nation’s masculine promise, it has also emerged that women are overtaking men in the treacherous world of entry-level employment. Whilst 11.2% of young women are not in work or training, amongst young men that figure is half as high again, at 17.2%. Why aren't feminists excited by this news? Shouldn't we be chalking up the fact that young women are hoarding top grades and precious low-wage vacancies as a major victory for 21st-century women's liberation?

Not so fast. Another equally well-evidenced trend over the past ten years has been the dizzying rise in mental health problems and low self-esteem amongst young women and girls. Women in the developed world are, it is estimated, over twice as likely to suffer depression and chronic anxiety as men; 80% of young self-harmers and 90% of teenagers with eating disorders are female. A recent study of Scottish 15-year-olds showed that whilst 19% of girls experienced common mental disorders in 1987, that incidence had increased to 44% by 2006, compared to just 21% for boys. These trends do not occur in isolation: they are linked.

It is not far fetched to surmise that it is precisely the alienation and distress that young women feel that make them ideal students and workers in today's ruthlessly profit-oriented economy, especially in the lower tiers of the labour market, where servility and identikit quiescence are paramount. In her book 'Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,' Courtney E Martin describes this alienation:

"girls and young women across the world harbor black holes at the center of our beings. We have called this insatiable hunger by many names -- ambition, drive, pride -- but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth in the shape we are in."

Girls are trained from an early age to understand ourselves as social and physical commodities, as objects for others’ consumption who can adapt and should submit to whatever the current labour market wants from us. We expect to have to work hard for little or no reward, to be pleasant and self-effacing at all times. If we encounter failure - whether in the face of frantically standardised educational 'assessment objectives' or a job market so drained of opportunities that only the most abject and malleable wage-slaves need apply - women and girls tend to assume that it is we who are at fault, rather than the system itself.

Our response, as Will Hutton wrote in the Observer last month, is to "fearfully redouble [our] efforts, to avoid failure." Insecure and keen to please, young women will accept lower wages, longer hours and little to no job security. No wonder it is women who seem to represent the best business investment in this brave new post-crash world - the future of human labour in a labour market that hates humans. No wonder it is young women, not men, whom business owners and agencies are keen to employ. No wonder it is pretty young women who appear on the front covers of every paper in exam season, grinning and jumping on cue... (read the rest at New Statesman).


  1. The Mighty Quinn30 August 2010 at 19:42

    Let's get real. British GCSEs and A levels aren't really all that hard and don't demand much by way of originality and inventiveness on the part of examinees: it's mostly about regurgitating facts and mechanically using formulae and techniques in order to derive answers: taught degrees at university level aren't much different. At these sub-doctoral levels women tend do better than men because, let's be honest, they're better swats than men. Where men hugely outstrip women as far as academic achievement goes is when undertaking research degrees, particularly at doctoral and post-doctoral levels, where success depends upon submission of an original and ground-breaking piece of work, i.e, a thesis or dissertation, prepared single-handedly and defended by the candidate.

    So don't get too cocky, Penny Red. You yourself have only got an Bachelor's degree from Oxford when all is said and done.

  2. Hmmm...'These trends do not occur in isolation: they are linked.' So is that correlation or causation? Moreover, if 'We [girls/women] expect to have to work hard for little or no reward', in what way is - for example - a place at a top university with the potential future job earnings to follow 'little or no reward'?

    There's a further problem, in that the article re-writes much of the economic history of the last 30 years: first, the shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy; secondly, it buys into the a rather chauvinist idea that girls are more tractable, unlike those bolshy male types with their trade union activism and tendency to go on strike or just not give a damn; thirdly, that female/feminist commentators were quite happy to dance on patriarchy's grave as the 'genderquake' meant that women had all sorts of so-called 'soft' skills that would make them more employable than the boys with slugs and snails in their pockets. Put it another way: what's the difference between being a commodity with top grades and employable skills and being an potential employee with exactly the same things? Maybe young women can somehow trade off higher self-esteem for lower grades and a greater sense of social justice. You write:

    Low self-esteem is not antithetical to women's disproportionate success in the harsh worlds of target-driven education and entry-level work - it is an essential aspect of that success.

    Perhaps all those young women with straight As and good degrees are simply getting them for the wrong reasons. I can understand your wanting to attack the economic system as much as gender injustice/inequality, but it reads as though feminism had zero impact on the changing educational and economic circumstances of girls and young women (let alone their self-esteem). Either that, or (as I think Laura Kipnis argued) women were disappointed to discover that the world of paid work wasn't the great liberation they thought it would be beyond the receipt of their own wage packet.

    PS: I read your article after your tweet about all the 'menz' comments. Even allowing for masculinist trollage, the article still reads as arguing that (as one comment noted) it's patriarchy when girls do badly and it's still patriarchy when they do exceptionally well. But then you come up with the following:

    Young men, by contrast, are less likely to see the need to punish themselves when they fail, to change themselves to fit the ever-more exacting demands of lower-tier work during a labour surplus. Young men are more likely to graduate from university, school or further education believing that they are people rather than products, people who deserve respect and a decent standard of living, people who are of value. Self-esteem of this sort is a distinct disadvantage in today's job market.

    Why should any of this be the case, simply because they're men? Is it something to admire, or even emulate? And if it doesn't make them more employable - since you say that 'Self-esteem of this sort is a distinct disadvantage in today's job market' - wouldn't that make male unemployment a greater long(er)-term problem, even before we factor in boys with lower (if any) qualifications? The 'who has it worse' p*ssing contest is tedious (as you pointed out in another article about the 'mancession'), yet this article both revives that debate while paradoxically suggesting women have it worse because they're more suited to the job market than men. The fiendishness of heteropatriarchalcapitalism knows no bounds.


    PPS: I've posted this over at the NS blog as well.

  3. Mental illness statistics are a minefield unfortunately.

    Women are much more likely to get eating disorders. That's uncontroversial.

    However for depression and anxiety, it's much less clear. The stats here are crap. Women are more likely to say that they feel depressed and anxious if you phone them up and ask them, they are also more likely to use antidepressants, but that doesn't mean they're more likely to actually be depressed and anxious. It could be that men are just less likely to realize it, admit it, seek treatment etc.

    This is also a big problem when it comes to the idea that rates of mental illness have risen in the past 10 or 20 years. More people are taking antidepressants but that doesn't mean more people are depressed.

    The suicide rate is I think a good "sanity check" (ho ho) in this case because we know that mental illness causes suicide. The suicide rate has been going down for 20 years, and men have much higher suicide rates than women. That goes for Britain and basically all other Western countries.

    Now that doesn't prove anything, but it makes me very skeptical of the rest of the statistics. Suicide rates are pretty hard and fast. All the other statistics are incredibly woolly. Something is wrong with the picture and I suspect it's the woolly stuff. See my blog for ad nauseaum discussion.

  4. This just in: 'Girls think they are cleverer than boys from age four, study finds':

    Girls think they are cleverer, more successful and harder working than boys from as young as four, a study has found.

    Boys come round to this view by the age of seven or eight and assume that girls will outperform them at school and behave better in lessons, research from the University of Kent shows.

    The study – Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threat – will be presented to the British Educational Research Association's conference tomorrow.

    The paper argues that teachers have lower expectations of boys than of girls and this belief fulfils itself throughout primary and secondary school.


    Jenny Parkes, senior lecturer in education, gender and international development at the Institute of Education, University of London, said there had been marked changes in girls' achievement in the UK in the latter half of the 20th century, in part thanks to feminism's influence on the way girls view themselves.

    Interestingly, Parkes also notes that: 'This seems to be particularly the case for middle-class girls,' which of course complicates matters still further.


    PS: I'm not going to post this over at the NS blog as the trolls will only misuse it (assuming they haven't found it for themselves yet), rather than recognise that the whole issue of gender, exams and employment is more complicated than they're prepared to acknowledge and your article suggests.

  5. As much as I like to disagree with everything you say, I can't.

    May the road rise with u 4 eva.


  6. This is really interesting reading. I write a blog, although very lighthearted, about the things I have to put up with as a lone female in an all male team.

    I don't want to go for the jugular when it comes to venting my frustrations, but I want my point to come across.

    Let me know what you think.

    Cheers, The Girl.


    Forgot to put the link - it's The Men rubbing off on me.

  8. All i remember when i was at scool doing 'O' levels my hormones where going through the roof: Had a permanent erection, could't concentrate on anything for more than 5 mins, distracted by sexy teachers, schoolgirls wearing the shirts too tight or skirts too short, was desperate to get laid/play guitar/drunk/high ( the same time). Most of the swoty girls knew all the tricks, flirted when they needed too. The lookers had older boyfriends with cars and went to clubs. Later i did my A levels at evening school with 90% blokes trying to catching up, Since i had an apprentaship i was already earning £10-15 an hour! Since when does the geology of the south downs ever help me sell windows/build a house or do my tax return.

  9. I find your writting very informative. I run a site on LG LX9500 and love reading blogs like


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