Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The changing balance of power between the genders

As the father of an only daughter but also as a teacher and head teacher I have always been very engaged with issues about post-feminist gender roles and gender equality. The area is full of paradoxes: gender equality is absolute in terms of UK employment law and yet women's average pay still lags way behind that of men; women are far more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse yet young men are the ones most likely to kill themselves; in every field of life successful women are becoming more prominent and yet only a tiny proportion of the biggest companies are led by women and the BBC have only just started addressing the massive gender imbalance that exists in terms of the profile of women onscreen.

There are those who believe that the cause of feminism has been won and others who feel (with some justification) that the 'new ladism' approach that began in the 90s represented a massive retrograde step. Some see the emergence of the ladette, and the increasing social acceptibility of heavy drinking by young women as proof of their equality of status and others decry it as nothing more than an excuse for loutish and sexually exploitative behaviour by young men to continue. Within school one can see both the seemingly unstoppable rise of girls and young women in terms of achievement and also their vulnerability to messages about body image and sexual availability.

In the area of writing, with which I am now most personally concerned, the picture is potentially a very interesting one indeed. The Forbes list of top-selling authors has just 6 of the top 15 as women, but what is interesting is that almost without exception the men are long established and now fading stars. At the other end of the market it is notable that almost every site anywhere that appeals to aspiring authors is illustrated with photos of young women and I get a strong sense that the massive expansion of interest in writing as a career is fuelled very largely by women. There are two very different genres of novel that are reserved for women authors- chic-lit and women's literary fiction- with nothing comparable for men.

This is hardly surprising in a way. A recent Associated Press poll found that in the US women read on average nine books a year and men five and the imbalance is probably far greater for adolescents I have taught. However I do not believe that it is simply an issue of women being more interested in fiction than men. I actually think that this rise of women in the world of novels is an illustration of a fundamental change that will turn our notions of the power balance between the genders upside down.

Whether it is something inherent in the difference between men and women or merely the result of social conditioning, there does seem to be a broad difference in the skills and attributes more commonly associated with men and women. Women in general seem better at what might be considered the 'soft' skills- of empathy, communication, emotional intelligence and the ability to build and maintain networks of friends and associates, whereas men have always been considered better equipped with the 'harder' attributes of competitiveness, problem-solving, independence and ambition.

For a long time there has been a belief that women too should lay claim to these masculine attributes- hence the power-dressing of the 80s and even the emergence of the ladette. Hardly surprising, because it has long been felt that these were the attributes that brought success. The language and iconography of big business has always presumed this: why else would the word "thrusting" ever be used to describe a successful executive?

But what if all that were to change? What if, in today's social media dominated world it were interconnectedness rather than thrusting individuality that led to success? What if the 'soft' skills turned out to be the only ones that really matter in the 21st century?

Take the aforementioned exponential rise in female aspirant novelists and compare it with more masculine hobbies, like football. Most 'hobby' novelists will never be published and most Sunday footballers will never play for any real team, but the difference is that the women are acquiring and practising the hugely empowering skill of writing, whereas the men are merely offsetting a small proportion of the deleterious health effects of the post-match session.

There is no question that women today still suffer unacceptable levels of sexual discrimination. The overt sexualisation of young women in the media is an appalling thing, as are the absurd and demeaning pressures on women as regards body image and ageing. However more and more I am beginning to see these as the last lashings out by the wounded beast of male hegemony and I really don't think they can last long.

The 21st century, it seems increasingly clear to me, will be the century in which generations of gender power imbalance will be reversed. And we men had better get used to it. And in preparation, we could at least start reading more fiction.

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