David Willetts, sexism and common sense

According to the Telegraph, David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, “blamed the entry of women into the workplace and universities for the lack of progress for men”. The tag line for the article says “feminism has held back working men”.

Let’s stop right there. “Blamed”? “Held back”? Is Mr Willetts suggesting that women should not have the same opportunities as men? That equal rights for women are, to put it bluntly, a bad thing? Is he a sexist dinosaur chasing women out of public life?

Wait, it gets worse. He uses the term “assortative mating” to describe how individuals with good education and potentially high earning power tend to choose partners with a similar level of education. The concept itself is hardly news, but to call it “assortative mating” when talking to the media? He’s absolutely right to call it “delicate territory”.

Is there any wonder that the Telegraph (as well as other papers) leapt on the story?

However, the quotes directly attributed to Mr Willetts make little mention of “blame” or “holding back”. Indeed, they contain no emotive terms in opposition to women’s rights, and a few in support. For example, he talks of the “entirely admirable transformation of opportunities for women”. He appears to be attempting to make factual, academic points about the changing nature of social mobility and gender roles. Even the inflammatory phrase “feminism trumped egalitarianism” is a comment on the faster decline of discrimination on the grounds of sex as opposed to class.  So what is he really saying?

If, and at this point it’s still an “if”, David Willetts is not sexist, then he is desperately in need of common sense.  In that case, this is disingenuous twisting on the part of the Telegraph (and other papers) and truly remarkable foolishness on the part of Mr Willetts. Surely, but surely he could have guessed how his words would be represented?


About feminismfortories

Moderate Tory, Liberal Feminist. Based in the UK.
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14 Responses to David Willetts, sexism and common sense

  1. Pingback: ‘Feminism trumps egalitarianism’ only if Willetts’s soundbite trumps evidence | Left Foot Forward

  2. Andy JS says:

    I find your dismissive tone disappointing. David Willetts might well be pointing out something which is both true and uncomfortable to admit. Anyone who’s been to university knows that a very large proportion of places are taken by middle-class females and the question of whether they have prevented working-class males and females from taking those places can’t be avoided.

    • Thanks for your comment. My main concern is that David Willetts did not appear to realise how his words would be portrayed by the media. While the issue is interesting, he used language open to misinterpretation and much more suitable for an intimate discussion group.

  3. Lee says:

    If feminism has led to more women entering the workforce, resulting in a lowering of wages and fewer opportunities, especially for the unskilled, then feminism has indeed had a negative overall effect on society as a whole.

    • I don’t agree. Firstly, more people entering the workforce only results in necessarily lower wages and fewer opportunities if growth is an impossible concept. More people entering the workforce expands the workforce, and depending on other factors, this can have a number of positive and negative effects. Secondly, society is rather larger than your comment appears to indicate. Equality most certainly has a positive effect on society as a whole — especially for those who were previously considered second-class citizens.

      • Lee says:

        Unfortunately many unskilled, uneducated young men are now demonised and excluded from many aspects of society. In previous decades there were plenty of well-paid, skilled manual work.

        Do you have any practical solutions to this problem?

      • I think you’re given me part of the answer: skilled manual work. The loss of many manual labour roles has had a negative effect on many communities. It has left many people without aspirations.

        On a deeper level, divisions between men and women don’t help this. Both men and women are demonised and excluded because they are unskilled, uneducated and unemployed.

  4. Lee says:

    Yes, divisions between men and women don’t help, but neither does failing to understand differences between the genders. Unemployment in particular, affects men and women differently; in terms of recognition and acceptance in society a man is judged by what he achieves, whereas a woman is merely judged by who she is. A man will not reject a woman because she’s poor or unemployed – that isn’t the case with women and unemployed men.

    • Anna says:

      Lee – what on earth are you talking about man!? from Jane Austin to Katy Price women have rejected men for being poor or unemployed!! And a woman is not judged merely on who she is but, as with men, who she is supposed to be. Men are supposed to work, women are supposed to look good and have babies. So yes, Women and men do experience different prejudices, you are right not to ignore them as they effect us all (regardless of gender). Society pays either way; benefits for unemployed men, therapy for women dealing with eating disorders etc…

      • Lee says:


        ‘ from Jane Austin to Katy Price women have rejected men for being poor or unemployed!! ‘

        This statement, which by the way I know to be true, doesn’t show the female of the species in a good light, does it?

      • Anna says:

        I agree Lee, women seem just as vulnerable to developing prejudices as men. Perhaps we’re more similar than we think. As such maybe we should all be encouraged to analyse things fairly before we say anything that might reinforce damaging stereotypes?

  5. Unemployment is one way in which many parts of society often portray men and women as different.

    I’m not a supporter of a strict gender-binary, and I’d suggest the second half of Natasha Walters’ book “Living Dolls” about biological determinism.

  6. Angela says:

    If I was a pensioner deciding whether to stay in work after 65 , I would be happier to leave my job/ retire if the vacancy created went to someone (female or male/ it’s not a gender issue) who has children to feed and where one of the parents had taken time off to raise kids well, than to see my job go to someone whose household already has another second job – ie dual income, with the kids packed off to nurseries from an early age.
    It’s no longer about gender (more and more dads stay at home) – it’s about childhood wellbeing, a caring society, social mobility, better distribution of wealth, good opportunities and sensitive nurturing of the kids etc etc Jobs are scarce and should be shared out between however many family units there are in the country, probably with the higher income parent carrying on with paid work (or the person who want to do the ‘caring’ being allowed to do so and valued for his/her ‘productive’ role) – like the old ‘family wage’. By the way I’ve seen a lot of dads far more ‘caring’ than their female partners, some clearly preferring the office to spending time with children – we’re all different and equal – let’s not judge each other, but celebrate these different talents instead.

    All the comments are about men and women – and obsession with so-called gender equality (isn’t our definition of equality a bit superficial anyway?) – but what about the children – the future? There’s a time for raising kids and a time for working – remember, just because a woman (or man) stays at home for a while doesn’t have to be forever, but at least it helps create opportunities in the paid workplace for other people who have responsibilities to meet.

    Anyway I feel Willetts should be free to point out the mathematical fact that where one person takes a job then another misses out. It’s common sense. Whether it’s ‘delicate’ or not shouldn’t affect our ability to discuss it intelligently and in the open. If there are unintended consequences of feminism ( ie no income and little chance of social mobility for some workless families, yet more household income than really needed for many others as both parents claim the right to a paid job ) then for heaven’s sake let’s discuss this unsustainable distribution of scarce job opportunities. And while we’re at it, equality isn’t just about ‘paid work’ – rather it’s about mutual respect for different daily tasks in life – and the role of the ‘carer’ has been undervalued for too long, despite it’s huge importance to us humans, especially with an ageing population. Caring should be included in GDP.

  7. Pingback: PMQs | Feminism For Tories

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