Last week saw another victory in the battle for equal pay. Workers in Swansea are now looking forward to receiving around £750,000 in back pay after the university that employs them decided to close the gender pay gap. Vive la révolution!
The only unusual thing about this case was that the workers in question were men, not women. The male cleaners, plumbers and carpenters at the University of Wales, Trinity St David, had discovered that they earned around £4,000 less than female colleagues.
The idea of women having a rotten deal has become so firmly entrenched in British public life that we have become blind to the problem emerging for the boys. For years now, girls have done better at GCSEs, and this is often treated as a great sign of progress. But if equality means parity of the sexes, then what’s to celebrate about girls doing better?
In fact, in modern Britain, girls are beating the boys at every stage of life — right up until they leave the workplace to have children. The new inequality in Britain seems to start at birth: government data published in November on children under five found girls to be outperforming boys in every one of the official early learning goals, which include listening and attention, understanding, reading, writing, technology and moving and handling.
Girls seem to glide through primary school, while boys trudge. Seven-year-old boys are 7 per cent less likely to reach the expected level in reading than girls. By 11 years old, the gap is eight percentage points. And it keeps yawning wider the older the children get: at 13 it’s 12 per cent; by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap is 14 percentage points. While 66 per cent of girls achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, only 56 per cent of boys manage the same.
On to the sixth form, and the gap’s still there. Young women achieved higher scores on average across all qualifications at key stage five. Last year, the average point score per student achieved by girls by the end of their schooling was 740 compared to 706 for boys. But here boys do beat the girls on one count: they get more top grades at A-level. By the end of school, 13 per cent of young men had achieved three A* or A grades compared to 12.1 per cent of young women. So boys do finally catch up with girls in time for university, right? Wrong. Girls also outnumber boys in university applications.
They have also, in recent years, wiggled their way along the pay tightrope. Median annual hourly pay for women in their twenties is £10.60, and for men it’s £10.57.
When does a woman stop being a rising star? It’s when she reaches her childbearing years: her salary and prospects plummet like a stone. Men are saved, at present, by Britain’s notoriously high childcare costs, which force so many women out of the workplace. That our economy loses the talents of so many women who are willing to work is indeed a scandal. But it’s also a scandal that nowadays men seem to do well only when women disappear, often reluctantly, from the office. Things shouldn’t be like that. What’s stranger still is that this imbalance seems to be written off either as a wonderful leap forward for girls without a thought for the boys left behind, or just as one of those things.
It’s the same in the wider culture: men appear on adverts as hopeless, overweight buffoons clutching a beer in one hand and a pair of barbecue tongs in the other, while the women roll their eyes and organise the house, the car, the family. A friend of mine who contributes enthusiastically to the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project thinks nothing of talking down her apparently less academic (but altogether more pleasant) husband as a dim pie-and-chips type. How do we get away with it when men are (rightly) pilloried for making such assumptions about the opposite sex?
The answer is that we don’t really get away with it. It has a profound impact on men. A study published last year found that from the age of four, girls decide — and think adults agree — that boys are academically inferior. Boys arrive at the same decision aged seven. One London parent I know was thrilled to discover his son was the second-best in his class at school, to be told by the teacher that he was in fact only the second-best boy. The boys weren’t being told what their performance was relative to the girls in their class, because, the teacher explained rather sheepishly, the girls were more studious. The children in question were six years old. The father now has to reassure his son that he can be as bright as the girls.
An unlikely Barbara Castle figure battling on boys’ behalf in Parliament is Labour’s Diane Abbott. Last year, this battle-hardened feminist gave a speech on the ‘crisis of masculinity’. She said, ‘British society has given into a fatalism about outcomes for boys — the “They’re just like that” syndrome.’ She argued, sensibly, that this wasn’t about pitting the sexes against one another, but that British feminists need to worry about the crisis of masculinity too.
Abbott sounded the alarm about boys, but she could reasonably be even more worried about men. This year the Office for National Statistics reported that young men are no longer the group most likely to kill themselves. That is because men in their early forties have taken over as the most vulnerable group. Men in general account for 77 per cent of all suicides in the United Kingdom, up from 63 per cent in the 1980s. The suicide rate for men in their forties is the highest it has ever been. The overall suicide rate is down, but that’s driven mainly by a decrease in women taking their lives — the rate for female suicides has halved since 1981. The male suicide rate has fallen by just 8 per cent since then.
Doctors believe there is a cultural barrier that prevents men from seeking help when they develop mental health conditions, since they think they are still expected to be strong at all times. This can lead to their conditions deteriorating without anyone noticing until it’s too late.
It may be a while before government realises what is going on. The 2012 ‘Preventing Suicide Strategy’ did not suggest any male-specific solutions. The latest update does acknowledge problems among middle-aged men and also suggests establishing community outreach programmes in ‘traditional male environments’ such as rugby clubs. While that’s well-intentioned, it’s hard to think how this would work in practice.
Another life-threatening set of illnesses on the rise among men is eating disorders. These have long been held to be a female affliction. Melissa Benn’s book What Should We Tell Our Daughters? takes the reader on a miserable tour of womanhood, to the extent that a would-be parent might hope that they don’t have a daughter, since life for young women looks so unremittingly bleak. It trudges through chapters called ‘Think Yourself Thin’, ‘The Myth of Perfection’ and ‘How Should a Woman Be?’ But a quarter of those thinking themselves thin (or into another unnatural shape) are in fact men. The last decade saw eating disorders among men rise far faster than among women.
Yet doctors are failing to diagnose and treat these disorders in men. Last month researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Glasgow found that males suffering from eating disorders are less likely to seek early help, because they and those around them are unaware that men can suffer from these conditions. And yet again, men suffering from such disorders are considered more likely to kill themselves than women with the same illnesses.
It’s not just in psychiatry that men are left behind. More men are hospitalised with illnesses which could have been treated by their GPs if they’d attended earlier. They are 33 per cent less likely to visit their GPs than women. They are also less likely to join programmes to help them to stop smoking or to lose weight, in spite of higher rates of tobacco use and of obesity among men.
This is not to say that women’s lives are fantastic these days. They are still earning less and are not able to take advantage of all the opportunities they’d like to because of prohibitively expensive childcare. They are still overwhelmingly the victims of physical and sexual violence. Each week in the UK, two women die at the hands of their partners. Feminism still has many battles ahead before it can stamp out the burning bras.
More than one problem can exist at once, though: life is not a set of scales where if one group goes up, the other goes down. But while our political debate quite comfortably lumps certain problems together as ‘women’s issues’, there is a noticeable reluctance to do the same for men, or to worry about our sons. Last month, opposition MPs and journalists kicked up a stink about the new women’s minister, Nicky Morgan, not being senior enough. Perhaps on the basis of the trends we’re seeing today, we also need a minister for men.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 May 2014