Why Willetts is wrong on feminism and social mobility

The countries with the highest levels of social mobility are those with the highest levels of gender

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David Willetts's claim that feminism is to blame for the decline in social mobility has caused no shortage of outrage this morning. His thesis is that middle-class women, who otherwise would have been housewives, have snapped up university places and well-paid jobs that could have gone to working-class men.

Tto my eyes, there's a basic empirical problem with his claim. All of the available data on the subject shows that the countries with the highest levels of social mobility are those with the highest levels of gender equality. The 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries according to how well they "divide resources and opportunities amongst male and female populations", puts Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden at the top, with Britain lagging behind in 15th place (a fact which suggests, pace Willetts, that the "feminist revolution" has some way to go).

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If we turn our attention to social mobility, a similar pattern emerges. As the graph below from the excellent book The Spirit Level shows, the most socially mobile countries are those feminist utopias, Norway, Finland and Sweden (Iceland wasn't included in this study). What you'll also notice is that the chart shows there is a positive correlation between income equality and social mobility. This is hardly surprising: greater inequalities of outcome make it easier for rich parents to pass on their advantages to their children.

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Thus, Willetts's claim that "feminism trumped egalitarianism" is decidedly shaky. The high standing of Scandinavian women hasn't come at the expense of equality in those societies. In the case of Britain, it would be more accurate to say that Thatcherism trumped egalitarianism. The fact that child poverty tripled under Thatcher (from one in nine children to one in three) did more to depress social mobility than any other policy.

But Willetts, having failed to learn from the mistakes of the last Conservative government, is condemned to repeat them. As the IFS has warned, the government's austerity measures will increase absolute poverty by 900,000 and relative poverty by 800,000.

The coalition's reckless approach means that it is certain to preside over a huge increase in inequality and yet another fall in social mobility.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.