Sunday, April 3, 2011

David Willetts rests his two brains

David Willetts, the minister responsible for frightening a generation of teenagers out of the idea of going to university, has now turned his fire on women. Women are responsible for a decline in social mobility, by insisting on working and having careers. This statement has predictably generated a hail of criticism, by seeking to imply that women should forego their opportunities in the name of social mobility, and for ignoring the probably more serious effects of a range of deleterious policies and processes which have nothing at all to do with feminism.

But as well as the troubling normative stance Willetts reveals, he also has basically no evidence at all for making such a claim. Of course, the tendency of well-paid men to be increasingly likely to form families with well-paid women does increase inter-household inequality. But this effect is only important because it compounds the existing levels of inequality in the labour market. The real reason for declining social mobility is much more likely to be the increase in inequality caused by structural changes in the labour market, the decline in trade union membership, and changes to the welfare and tax systems, none of which are particularly favourable to women.

So, how likely is it that Willetts has a point? Well, let's look at the data. Comparable social mobility data is hard to come by, but we have good data on overall levels of inequality at a given point in time. If Willetts is right, we could expect to see countries where women work more having higher levels of inequality, as the women crowd men out of the decent jobs in the labour market and create a larger gap between rich and poor.

Here is what the data say:

Countries with higher levels of female labour force participation have lower inequality. Over to you, two brains.