In the 1970s there was a lot of concern about how girls were doing in education. They were encouraged to take on traditionally male subjects, to improve their self-esteem, to be aware of the women’s movement which was removing fetters on girls’ progress. Programmes aimed at promoting girls’ achievement, coinciding with other social changes, helped girls not only to do better but to soar.
Education was to be one of the principal motors of female success. In 2009, research found that 49% of women opted for higher education, compared to 37% of men. And 64% of women achieved passes compared to 59% of men.
Girls rapidly caught up with boys and then surpassed them in every subject, including to degree level. Not only were more girls than boys go to university, but they got better grades and were much less likely to drop out.
A great deal of anxious discussion followed, often centred on differences between the male and female brains. But the real reason was simple enough: boys didn’t think it was cool to study hard. The more girls were pushed to succeed and the harder they worked, the more hard work became a ‘girlish’ and uncool activity. Male-dominated society remained determined to keep clear blue water between the sexes, and boys responded by messing around in class and scoffing at academic achievement. All this achieved was to push them further and further into a dead-end.
The consequences for society were radical. Women made up a greater and greater proportion of graduates and began to outstrip men in the workforce, aiming higher and earning more than their partners. They were helped by the disappearance of traditional ways of working. In a technological world, physical labour was becoming less and less important, which opened up the workplace to women. Rigid hours and other demarcations were falling away, but this suited women who had always led more flexible lives.
By 2040, the statistics had shifted even more in women’s favour: 68% of women went into higher education compared to 29% of men. Women outnumbered and outperformed men on every course. Even technology, mathematics and sciences had become female bastions. Their superiority was so complete that people began to discuss whether girls were innately better at maths and science than boys, or even more intelligent in general.
The 2009 women graduates could expect to earn less than men regardless of their qualifications, but by 2040 this had been swept away with women being paid on average a third more than men for doing the same job.
The goal of the women’s movement had been clear: equal rights for women. The Suffragettes and feminists had believed it was wrong for one sex to dominate public and working life while the other was consigned to domesticity and dependence. But the process they started had thrown up a remarkable new twist.