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22 January 2001

When women rule the world

If girls continue to outshine boys, what will men do? Geraldine Bedellthinks she can guess

By Geraldine Bedell

This year, for the first time ever, more women than men got first-class degrees. Female educational achievements go from strength to strength, and, in a world where knowledge, analysis and interpretation are crucial for economic success, it seems likely that women will soon be running everything.

It may have taken a while for female achievement to gain critical momentum – mass secondary education for girls came in with the Butler Act of 1944 – but it now seems unstoppable. Girls do better at GCSE, get more A grades at A level, enter university in larger numbers and come out with more Firsts and fewer Thirds.

One reason, or excuse, offered for this upset is the large coursework component of today’s exams. It is true that women have always been good at the coursework of life, which is why behind every successful man there stands an amazed woman. But in the past, men have been able to outflank us with the occasional bold flourish. Secure in their assumptions of superiority, it has been possible for them to survive on 98 per cent laziness and 2 per cent chutzpah.

However, it is going to be increasingly difficult for men to assume that they are entitled to take over everything and, additionally, to be paid our salaries plus one-third as much again. How will they carry it off, when they remember all those spelling tests and finals papers? Besides, women would laugh. Even if you changed the exams back to the cramming type, it is likely that boys would be unable to pull off their old confidence trick.

The prospect of a world in which women are not merely good at coursework, but also self-assured enough to manage the flourishes, alarms a great many people. Last summer, David Blunkett ordered an inquiry into the slump in boys’ performance at GCSE, blaming lad culture.

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But what are boys to do? Become more like women? This is what many feminists have long advocated – Dusting Man – and it may have some appeal for the more sensitive guy. But I am not sure that we covet the right to do a 40-hour week, and then come home and do another one, managing the stress by frequently bursting into tears in the toilets at work, all that much.

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A larger cohort, perhaps, will welcome female success as an excuse to be more hopeless than ever. They will focus on the things they are really good at – going to the pub, remembering obscure facts about the performance of cars – and ditch the rest. Let women get on with achieving! Girls are so much better at all that graft.

This lot will be unable to do housework, on the grounds that their hands are too big and they keep dropping things. They won’t be able to manage interior decor either, because they have never been able to see why you shouldn’t keep the tomato ketchup on top of the television. They won’t be much good at changing tyres, because that’s technical, and, as everyone knows, that’s something they just didn’t shine at back in school. They will be quite good at playing with children, but only as long as it doesn’t go on all day.

There is, however, a third way – which, it is my guess, is the route that most men will take. It will involve adopting female roles, but in a peculiarly testosterone-fuelled fashion. For example, in the past, the education system was able to rely for a supply of teachers on intelligent, motivated, good-at-coursework women, because women had few other options. In future, however, economically rational women with their Firsts and MBAs are likely to dismiss teaching: why put yourself through that when you could be a £150-an-hour lawyer? So men will have to move in. But being men, and excelling above all at attaching status to anything they do, they will insist that they are now in the front line of the economy.

They will point out that they are producing people – clever, thoughtful people, who are the primary engine of economic growth. Where, they will ask, are all the artists, engineers, scientists, analysts and commentators to come from, if teaching is not taken seriously? Teachers must therefore be paid substantial salaries, as befits their position (one intrinsic to all social and economic activity), and must be accorded great respect.

What is true of teaching is even more true of parenting. Sensible, successful women will become increasingly chary of taking on a job demanding very long hours (high-quality applicants preferred) but offering in return no salary or status, no pension provision or profits. Again, men are going to have to take up the slack, and they will do so in their own, uniquely aggressive fashion.

This will involve pointing out that in the post-industrial economy, parents are the major producers of wealth. And an economic system that disproportionately rewards individualism, selfishness and competitiveness but penalises carers – they will explain – is doomed to spiral downward, because, without the carers, there is no civilised context for society.

Think, apart from anything else, of all the money these good fathers will be saving the criminal justice system. But their task (they will insist) is far from easy. Starting a family requires as much effort and investment as starting a business, and it is at least as risky. It is therefore essential (men aren’t that stupid) that there be a decent return on this investment. They will be performing vital tasks, for which there can be no technological substitutes. It is only right that this activity should be seen as cool, high status, seriously worthwhile and extremely well-paid.

David Blunkett should stop worrying. It’s going to be great.