September 2, 2013
In a recent survey, the British discount website MyVoucherCodes asked a group of 18 to 25-year-old women if they would trade some of their IQ for bigger breasts. Of the 1,100 women surveyed, one-third of respondents said they would. Meanwhile, in the US, a study showed that for American women who were below average weight, gaining 25 pounds produced an average salary decrease of $15,500.
What do these statistics tell us about the position of women in our society, or societies?
In a week when Miley Cyrus was the talk of our dinner table and my teenager daughter gave an explanation of “twerking” to her bemused (and shocked) granny, let’s consider the changing position of women in Ireland.
Poor Miley appears to have attracted the scorn of moralists from every quarter. Yet, in a familiar chorus line, few spoke of the 36-year-old man onstage with her. Are we still stuck in the age-old “slut and hero” narrative?
Even though the survey suggested that many women would swap their brains for bigger boobs, or feel that they should appear “up for it” all the time, confirming that sex still sells, these mask profound changes in our society which will have enormous economic ramifications in time.
Indeed, the silent but extraordinary educational and societal advances being made right now by Irish women is probably the greatest, unnoticed transformation in Irish life. This progression is likely to have a much greater impact on daily life here than any event we are likely to commemorate in the next few years.
Sometimes, the small things and small inventions make a far greater difference than the big events that form the subject matter of summer schools, academic papers and radio documentaries.
As we begin an era of celebration and commemoration from 1913 to 1916, let’s think a bit more laterally about what improved the position of women in Ireland.
The brilliant South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang argues that the introduction of the humble washing machine has had a much greater impact on the world than the internet. I agree with him. What he is saying is that for centuries women washed the family’s clothes every day. Not only was this backbreaking work, it was enormously time consuming.
The washing machine cut the hours that women had to spend washing clothes. It increased the time women could spend doing other stuff, like going to work outside the home.
Or having time to think, to talk and to consider their views on issues. It also contributed enormously to literacy and education, because there is little point in having the opportunity of education if you have no time to avail of it because you’re scrubbing clothes.
These inventions in the kitchen – washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, electric or gas ovens and so on – all had the effect of reducing the huge effort that, for thousands of years, most women put into running the house.
The unintended consequence of these inventions, which became widely available here in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s, was to complement innovations in the availability of education and of course, birth control.
The economic impact of these advances over a generation ago is particularly significant in education.
Education changes everything. You educate people and you change them forever. No country has ever achieved an increase in the standard of living for all without making huge leaps in educational attainment.
In Ireland, there have been two education stories. The first was the impact on poor boys of free education. The second was the impact on girls. The latter happened a generation later.
The first major beneficiaries of free education were impoverished boys whose fathers didn’t have such opportunity. Research shows that the initial absolute winners from free education in Ireland were the sons of rural small farmers. Those from east Galway stand out in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the trend was across rural Ireland in general.
In contrast, the sons of the urban poor didn’t respond to the opportunities free education afforded in any way like the sons of the rural poor, and so didn’t see much upward social mobility in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, a generation on, it is Irish women who are making all the progress.
The statistics from the Leaving Cert are unambiguous. In general terms, 78.5 per cent of girls taking higher-level courses managed an honour, compared with 74 per cent of boys.
Girls outpaced the boys in Irish and geography, French and biology. Even in physics – often the preserve of boys – the class of 2013 defied tradition: 84.7 per cent of higher level girls achieved an honour, while only 70.4 per cent of boys managed it.Girls also had the upper hand in English, technology, history, Spanish and Italian.
This success in the Leaving Cert is having huge ramifications for those going into university, and is changing the complexion of the traditional bastions of male power in Ireland.
For example, if current education trends continue, the Law Library will be “predominantly female” within a decade. This is according to the Bar Council of Ireland, the trade union for barristers.
Currently, 60 per cent of the country’s 2,361 barristers are male, but women make up 45 per cent of all barristers with less than seven years of practice. At this rate, in ten years’ time, there will be more women at the Bar than men.
We see the same trend in medicine and veterinary. In 2012, 54 women graduated from Veterinary Medicine in UCD out of a class of 74. Although women currently form 34 per cent of those working in the profession in Ireland, it is only a matter of time before they outnumber their male counterparts.
The feminisation of the veterinary profession is not unique to Ireland. In Britain, where the male country vet was immortalised by the series All Creatures Great And Small, women account for 80 per cent of veterinary students, while in America, they have outnumbered men since 2009.
According to the CSO, women are more likely to have a third-level qualification than men. More than half of women aged between 25 and 35 have a third-level qualification, compared with fewer than four out of ten men. Boys are also more likely to leave school early, and girls do better than boys at second level.
These trends will have a profound impact on Irish society in the years ahead as women will continue, propelled by better education, to move upwards both professionally and commercially.
Interestingly, I am writing this while sitting in a corner of Electric Picnic and one thing strikes me. Could it be that rock ‘n’ roll – supposedly a vehicle for equality and liberation – ends up being the last bastion of overt sexism? In front of me are hundreds of young women and men, having a laugh and listening to great music, but oddly, onstage it’s almost exclusively men. Now that’s another one to consider, nearly 50 years after Woodstock.