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).