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29 August 2010updated 09 Feb 2015 5:35pm

Laurie Penny: Girls, exams and employment — a race to the bottom

Girls outperform boys in education and graduate employment — but feminists have no reason to celebrate.

By Laurie Penny

Young women are doing disproportionately well in this recession. Girls have just outperformed boys at GCSE and A-level for the tenth consecutive year, and along with the cursory smattering of articles bemoaning the educational fate of our nation’s masculine promise, it has also emerged that women are overtaking men in the treacherous world of entry-level employment.

While 11.2 per cent of young women are not in work or training, among young men that figure is half as high again, at 17.2 per cent. Why aren’t feminists excited by this news? Shouldn’t we be chalking up the fact that young women are hoarding top grades and precious low-wage vacancies as a major victory for 21st-century women’s liberation?

Not so fast. Another equally well-evidenced trend over the past ten years has been the dizzying rise in mental health problems and low self-esteem among young women and girls. Women in the developed world are, it is estimated, over twice as likely to suffer depression and chronic anxiety as men; 80 per cent of young self-harmers and 90 per cent of teenagers with eating disorders are female.

A recent study of Scottish 15-year-olds showed that while 19 per cent of girls experienced common mental disorders in 1987, that incidence increased to 44 per cent by 2006, compared to just 21 per cent for boys. These trends do not occur in isolation: they are linked.

It is not far-fetched to surmise that it is precisely the alienation and distress that young women feel which make them ideal students and workers in today’s ruthlessly profit-oriented economy, especially in the lower tiers of the labour market, where servility and identikit quiescence are paramount. In her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney E Martin describes this alienation:

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Girls and young women across the world harbour black holes at the centre of our beings. We have called this insatiable hunger by many names — ambition, drive, pride — but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth in the shape we are in.

Girls are trained from an early age to understand ourselves as social and physical commodities, as objects for others’ consumption who can adapt and should submit to whatever the current labour market wants from us. We expect to have to work hard for little or no reward, to be pleasant and self-effacing at all times. If we encounter failure — whether in the face of frantically standardised educational “assessment objectives” or a job market so drained of opportunities that only the most abject and malleable wage-slaves need apply — women and girls tend to assume that it is we who are at fault, rather than the system itself.

Our response, as Will Hutton wrote in the Observer last month, is to “fearfully redouble [our] efforts to avoid failure”. Insecure and keen to please, young women will accept lower wages, longer hours and little to no job security. No wonder it is women who seem to represent the best business investment in this brave new post-crash world — the future of human labour in a labour market that hates human beings. No wonder it is young women, not men, whom business owners and agencies are keen to employ. No wonder it is pretty young women who appear on the front cover of every paper in exam season, grinning and jumping on cue.

In today’s low-pay, low-security, high-turnover world of work, young people are simply commodities. A 2008 white paper on higher education described graduates as “products and services that the market needs”. Women and girls grasp this equation easily, unlike boys, who are more likely to enter adulthood with some vestige of self-worth.

Young women have only to glance at the top and middle shelves of any newspaper stand, or at page three of the Sun, to understand that we are objects for others’ consumption, and that the best way to survive is to be as pleasing as possible to powerful men, to crush our dreams and developing personalities into whatever small space society can spare for us. Low self-esteem is not antithetical to women’s disproportionate success in the harsh worlds of target-driven education and entry-level work — it is an essential aspect of that success.

Young men, by contrast, are less likely to see the need to punish themselves when they fail, to change themselves to fit the ever-more exacting demands of lower-tier work during a labour surplus. Young men are more likely to graduate from university, school or further education believing that they are people rather than products, people who deserve respect and a decent standard of living, people who are of value. Self-esteem of this sort is a distinct disadvantage in today’s job market.

Such labour trends do not represent a victory for feminism. They represent a race to the bottom in which everyone loses out. Fashioning ourselves into ever more efficient capitalist comestibles will not help women to win the battle of the sexes — but understanding how workers’ rights and women’s rights are intertwined might help this belaboured generation fight a more sustained war on injustice.