September 2, 2013

The lessons of female success

Posted in Behavioural Economics · 42 comments ·

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.

Subscribe to receive my news and articles direct to your inbox

  1. NK

    > the introduction of the humble washing machine has had a much greater impact on the world than the internet.

    Fortunately for them, Al Gore was busy helping invent the Internet otherwise – had he gotten on their CO2-generating case earlier – they’d still be saving the world the good, old-fashioned, low-CO2 way.

    > In contrast, the sons of the urban poor didn’t respond to the opportunities

    Too much welfare?

    My major conclusion is that it’s high time to cancel all subsidies and other means of negative discrimination that benefit women. It is absolutely ridiculous and beyond all belief that we are still spending taxpayer money on such nonsense.

    • Joe R

      > they’d still be saving the world the good, old-fashioned, low-CO2 way.

      You are mixing up dryers with washing machines, I think.

      Space and water heating are the worst offenders for CO2 emissions in housing, if you count out embodied energy used to make the same housing. Dryers are quite wasteful but aren´t very up the list.

      > Too much welfare?

      This has to be raised I think. Particularly in relation to return and what is lost in terms of opportunity cost ( who gets squeezed ) as a result of massive unconditional subsidies. Sorry there is one condition – you can´t work.

      The `regeneration´ of Ballymun, an area which had only been `generated´ some 40 years before to begin with has cost to date a ridiculous 400,000 euro on average per residential unit delivered – including social, affordable and for private sale. That is pure contract build cost and is 3 times above cost for private/speculative units normally.

      Despite having a huge subsidy stumped up twice inside of 50 years by the state the area has had continuous high unemployment, high numbers of teenage births/single parent families and low 3rd level attendance, low average income and loads of social problems, including drugs and anti-social behaviour.

      Some kind of cost benefit has to apply I think. There should be limits I think, many other deserving cases have missed out to fund all of this.

  2. Patrick

    Are we moving back to the society where men sit around discussing politics and the women put the bread on the table. Or is this moving forward?

  3. Gearoid O Dubhain

    On the day my agreed divorce was heard I and the court usher were the only males present on the court. When I returned to the building site for work the next day, there were no women. Unfortunately David did not deal with this aspect of the divide between men and women and neither do feminists. On those women were doing the hand washing hundreds of thousands of men were engaged in physically exhausting, mimd numbing, labour across the country for subsistence wages, work which contributed to poor health and relatively early deaths. But again David didnt refer to this. David appears to accept hook line and sinker the feminist theory that only women suffered in the past. As for the lack of female bands, when women start buying the tickets and music of females, just as when they start getting involved in and voting for females, things will change. So isnt it time to lay off the ‘Its all mens fault’ moaning and groaning ?

  4. StephenKenny

    So what are the lessons?

    • 5Fingers

      Well what it proves is that men still have the heads buried in the sand, still talking rubbish or making music or waffling about politics or economics while the world is crumbling around our ears. The women are sticking to the knitting and in greater numbers are taking control.

      Unfortunately, various brotherhoods be they in banking, politics, military or chucking bombs at one another might not be demolishing themselves fast enough or without taking the rest of us with them.

      As for IQ (a male construct if ever there was one), ask your average male, would they be willing to swap their brawn, their “apparent” sexual appeal and dominance for a few more points on the Mensa Scale? Would they F*&^! At least the women “know”.

      Time to wake up chappies!!! Just hope they do not replace us.

  5. DavidIreland

    I get the feeling that girls simply work harder at the study business than boys, for many reasons. I also think that this may change in the future as boys eventually begin to realise that they have real competition in the career and jobs market from people that bring equal skills and competencies to the table but also new strengths and contributions that may sometimes be more suited to the modern world.

    As regards any unequal scorn being heaped on male or female dancers on a TV show, I suggest that if the guy had worn a skin coloured swimsuit and ponced about the stage twerping HAO, the level of scorn may have been more equal. Then again, the reasons for the scorn may have been different.

    • contraflow

      Have to agree on Robin Thicke escaping the scorn that was heaped on Miley Cyrus. Had he whipped off his suit to reveal a rubber mankini, then rubbed a foam hand in Miley Cyrus private parts before finishing with furious ass grinding in Miss Cyrus’s crotch I think you would have of reaped the same level of abuse for his embarrassing display.

      I don’t think society is biased in it’s assessment of Cyrus’s performance.

  6. contraflow

    Is female success an own goal for women. Essentially a successful life is now a career as well as raising kids, effectively two jobs. They have been encouraged into the workforce by modern day marketing as it doubles the number of consumers and by government as it increases the tax base.

    But is their life better now that they are more “successful”?


    During 2012, Ireland had net emigration of 34,000 people, the UK had a net gain of 180,000. Even with record amounts of investment in education, the Irish emigration figure is back @ the level it ran @ over the previous century. Why educate ( expensively) people for employment abroad ?

  8. Thriftcriminal

    In fairness the main issue people have with Miley Cyrus is that she is engineering a transition from Disney to something that will sell better as she enters her twenties. The response arrises from the change from a wholesome image that parents might view as a good role model (bloody awful show mind you) to something more mature. Christina Aguilera did exactly the same thing and was also criticised. This has nothing to do with sexism, it is a reaction to re-branding as something new that was not previously associated with the product.

    • ps200306

      +1. This sort of sensationalism is gold dust to this Cyrus lady’s management (whoever she is). Mugs like David and a million other media watchers comment on the moral aspects of a story which in actual fact is about a commercial product. Personally I don’t give a rats ass about what she or the other bloke on stage (whoever *he* is) are doing — I’m not buying their product. I do feel a bit of a twinge for the kids (I presume they’re kids?) who get fed this sort of horror. But that’s the fault of adults who expose their kids to such crass commercialism. We get the society we deserve.

    • 5Fingers

      100% Agree. As a woman, she is utter clearheaded. The reaction by the media is going as planned. Men are so easily manipulated.

    • 5Fingers

      100% Agree. As a woman, she is utterly clearheaded. The reaction by the media is going as planned.

  9. Adelaide

    Although I have not seen the footage it is sad to see the actor Mick Lally prostituting himself for a quick buck. I have fond memories of Glenroe and glad Dinny isn’t around to witness such erotica.

  10. Joe R

    The bit here above about the role of washing machines in modern life is taken from `23 Things They Don´t Tell You About Capitalism´ by Ha-Joon Chang.

    It is an eye-opening read, particularly in this age where economic fallacies are frequently cited as fact and then used for short-term and short sighted political gain. Anybody who wants to be able to argue simply and well against the current economic order really have a read of it. I can´t recommend it enough.

    • StephenKenny

      The idea that domestic technology did to female employment what agricultural automation had done to male employment a hundred years before, is hardly news.

      • Joe R

        No, it isn’t.

        In that chapter in his book the washing machine is representative of those advances and is contrasted against the impact of the internet / IT revolution

      • Joe R

        The chapter concludes with a warning against over evaluating the new vs the old, particularly when it comes to Government policy decisions.

        Now I can think of one country off hand where two successive governments have talked up the technology revolution as being the antidote to its unemployment problems at the behest of other and older industries.
        Any ideas as to which country that is?

  11. Joe R

    East Galway was mentioned above by D McW…not otherwise connected but here is the latest about what is happening there, apparently…soup kitchens no less…

  12. Never has a problem in our family as far as I could tell. It was equal opportunity for boys and girls and the girls achieved the higher academic standards. They did not necessarily achieve a higher standard of living with degrees in horticulture and agriculture.

    My aunts were all teachers as well as parents and uncles and siblings.

    Farm work was also evenly distributed with the expectation that everyone did everything. In hindsight it seems the girls got stuck with washing the dishes, not the boys and mother cooked the meals, and cared for the household despite a university education. Also mother stayed home to look after the family while dad worked two jobs to fund the lifestyle.

    The biggest problem I see today is the feminization of the boys. Hormones have escaped into the general environment and food supplies. Boys are not allowed to rough and tumble and, in short, be boys. Reports suggest that as many as 60% of boys are proscribed Ritalin to subdue activity. Fluoride in the water supply numbs the mind and body. Pollution affects us all. Bread and circus routines do the same. That sex sells is plastered in all advertising creating aggressive feminine behaviours’ while at the same time boys are told to cool it and be respectful. Totally confusing.

    That is why I am retreating to organic farming, out of the mainstream poisons. The world is as usual, gone mad. Families and society are fractured. Spent the day hoeing carrots and kale today. Damp, humid and pleasant company. I sang to myself today. Happy thoughts. Better than a nap!!!Lots of women working in the fields too. Equality reigns!!!

    I digress.

  13. redriversix

    Hi Tony

    “Feminization of the boys” is a term I have only ever heard in our Home.

    My Wife & Daughter would bring this discussion up frequently at the dinner table.

    interesting topic brought up by David…….if you care for such discussion…

    being a MAN,I have more pressing responsibilities…[or could care less]

    Anyone can be whatever they want to be..who,what.or wherever they are.

    Unless of course you need validation from some stranger before you have “permission” to be or do what ever you want….

    People want to “be something”.? BE HAPPY

    After that..fuck it

    Sempre fi Tony

    Enjoy the Farming,very good for the soul.


    • Ancient Goddess Brigantia gave women the power in society. Men gained their power by affiliating with the right women.
      “Behind every successful man stands a woman” and all that.
      Nothing has changed in Millenia.

      Had a great day today. Farm owner, a woman of course, was delighted with a productive day. Expressed great gratitude for a job well done and made my day!!

      Women definitely control the world!!

  14. Bamboo

    While traveling through Vietnam I wrote this note.

    Vietnamese women are the cores of live. They do all the work that needs to be done on a daily basis to keep the economy running and naturally keep life in general running. Remarkably street cleaners and bin collectors are women (day and night), they are also active in the construction industry working as laborers, they look after their children, they are the street vendors, almost every hotel are run by women, etc. You name it and it is done and run by women. Fruit, food and cigarettes are sold by women street vendors while men are specialized in selling sun glasses and watches. Women collect all the recyclables like plastic bottles, cans and papers from the streets, public places and bins while men receive these recyclables for further processing.

    Men ……yes, we (all western travelers that we’ve met on the way) are wondering what men actually do.
    We’ve come up with quite a list.
    What we’ve seen is that men drive the buses, cars taxis and trucks. In essence anything with more than two wheels are driven by men. They are also vital in cuddling their little children at crucial times of the day. These times are the times when it suits the men of course. If the child is crying or needs feeding, then the kid is quickly passed on to the mother or some other female. Most importantly, men are allocated the vital role of skillfully sitting on their honkers and watch the world go by. Other miscellaneous although extremely important function is walking around while looking at the ground and “seeing” the big picture.

    We decided to have a cup of Vietnamese coffee just outside our hotel in Nha Trang. The lady serving us didn’t speak English and immediately this dude came along to help us order a Vietnamese coffee “with milk”. FYI: We had difficulty before trying to explain what “milk” is. But the lady understood very well what we wanted. However, this dude had better English and wanted to show off his English. He knew his stuff.

    Café wit mil?
    Yes, with milk please.
    You mean mil?
    Yes, milk.

    To confirm that he was correct in his understanding of “milk” he grabbed his left breast and pretended squeezing milk.
    After all that time trying to explain what “milk” is, along came this dude and cleared it all up for us all in one big squeeze. Yes, that is exactly where milk is sourced!! What an ingenious way and I was thinking of applying the same technique for the next occasion. While the “milk” misunderstanding is still being cleared up, the lady has long since put two cups of Vietnamese coffee with milk on the table.

    Again, this is another example how males can play a crucial role in serving coffee with milk.

    • coldblow


      That’s a pc-perfect comment if I may say. Were your travel companions of like mind?

      And a few more questions, if you have the time or the inclination. Do you think Irish men are comparable to Vietnamese? Do you agree with what David appears to be suggesting, that women are both victims of modern culture and beneficiaries? What further measures do you think could be taken to improve women’s lives and correct men’s attitudes? Just interested!

      • Bamboo

        That’s a nice comment. Thanks

        Were your travel companions of like mind?
        Yes, they are indeed.

        Do you think Irish men are comparable to Vietnamese?
        I think if mothers and grandmothers are not there to kick them in the ar$%e, yes they would have been the same. Especially before the 90s.

        Do you agree with what David appears to be suggesting, that women are both victims of modern culture and beneficiaries?
        Unfortunately there is always a silly side to any culture and/or religion. Women are always first in line to suffer from this silliness. Whether it is the constant dieting to look good, the handbag culture, the high heels and the “because the lady likes chocolate” syndrom – to be a woman you must luuuv chocolate. Etc, etc, etc.

        I won’t start on religion, as it is way pass my bedtime.
        From what I see, women in all cultures just get on with it and get things moving.
        In Ireland I see an added rivalry brewing up among women as they are now (rightly so) in a position to move up in the business environment and so in their social ranking. The younger female generation is also embracing the pub culture full on and hen parties can now be much wilder and daring than stag parties.
        I’d say Irish men are simply becoming more tag-along partners.

        What further measures do you think could be taken to improve women’s lives and correct men’s attitudes?
        Hmmm: who am I to answer this.

        • coldblow

          Thanks for the reply.

          I’m not trying to be smart but I would like to know if you think it’s a good thing that Irish men are ‘simply becoming more tag-along partners’ and if you think further measures are required to correct men’s more unattractive qualities or attitudes (eg via the education system by, say, promoting equality and gender studies, or through advertising) and to positively discriminate for women (eg quotas in the Dáil and at senior levels in public service).

          I’d be particularly interested in why you hold these views, if indeed you do. Eg because it would right a historic wrong, because your peer group hold them, because it forms part of a self-evident progressive moral programme. Or because this is the kind of views people hold these days (older views having become outdated) or because your peer group hold them.

          I don’t hold these views but I’m not saying I’m necessarily right (although I think I am); and it would clarify matters for me if I can be as clear as possible why those who do hold them do.

  15. This is about a white girl doing a black dance and the complexities of using body parts and poking fun adds to the dynamics of this economic gusto under public eye .Very simple techniques that work.

    My research of a substrate language in Ireland prior to Celtic arrived from Africa .

    Body part expressions are ample in their words on this isle . Examples include

    Ag Renka = making crooked legs ( dancing )

    Liffe ( vulgar ) = Vagina = Liffey River

    Loopa = thigh = loop head Co Clare

    Maybe we should re-visit the the animalistic expressions commonly used in Co Kerry to find out more about ourselves

  16. Have many Irish families more black blood in white skin than their European counterparts ?

    What lesson can we learn ?

    Has black slavery from Senegal sent the same people to America that in an earlier time they travelled to Ireland of their own free will ?

    Is black Ireland now more related to Barack Obama than we thought ?

    Can ‘the gathering ‘ now embrace black america ?

  17. Joe R

    Eddie Murphy is coming!

  18. Wills

    Big difference too between education in exam sausage factories and what education really means.

  19. Tull McAdoo

    I think ever since they got rid of Glass Steagall that these women have gotten too big for their boots. The latest I hear is that they are all buying Gold to hedge against future hyper inflation and peak oil……

    It’s only a matter of time before they corrupt young McWilliams and convince him to blow up Dail Eireann and hand back Ireland to the Queen like some mad cross between Guy Falkes and Art mcMurrough.

    It’s a good job I never leave the house without my tinfoil hat or they would get me aswell….i mean for god’s sake now they want to “Do it like a dude”…take it away Jessie J and goodnight Ireland .sleep well.

  20. susan redmond

    Was it Julia Roberts in the 90s who couldn’t be taken seriously in the workplace because of her big boobs and the way she dressed. Have we come much further since then, or perhaps she just hadn’t found her niche and is now making a great income working for herself in hedgefunds

    • Tull McAdoo

      I think it was Dolly Parton in the movie 9 to 5 which also featured Jane Fonda and lily Tomlin (1980). Parton was not taken seriously because she was a very good country singer who just could’nt act.

  21. pauloriain

    When you read some of this stuff around women’s advancement (some would say so called), it seems to always discounts mens contribution in the past, and in the present, to society and family life and ignores the sacrifices men made and make.

    The generalisation tends to be that women were put down and men got all the benefits in society.

    It’s also very risky to argue against the consensus and defend men in some way. Take for example, equality, a very good thing, but it means women should pay the same price for car insurance, but there are still people who argue against this, go figure.

    Anyway the main point is there’s never any real recognition for men’s contribution, but fortunately we do have one very accurate set of statistics, a definitive measure, mortality rates. On average, men die 8-10 years younger than women, because men’s lives are more hazardous and they work harder and work longer hours. To prove that historically that is the case, today the gap is narrowing as women’s participation in the workforce increases.
    Funnily enough, women are also on average richer than men, because they get to outlive their husbands.

    There’s no problem with women’s advancement, but does it have to be at the expense of men and will women be as generous with their success as men have been in the past.

    • aileendonegan

      Here, here Paul. As a woman and a woman’s rights advocate one of the biggest problems with feminism in my mind is its lack of acknowledgment towards men’s contribution to society over the years. It’s as if men are the cause of all problems, men are monsters etc. If we talked of women how some feminists speak of men there would be hell. Men’s issues are not taken seriously in society and I believe this reflects the death rates you mention.

      I used to be a feminist, I needed it when I was younger but now looking back most of the feminism I encountered constantly regurgitated the image of woman – me – as victim and oppressed. I believe in woman’s rights, men’s rights: human rights. Feminism though… glad I left that volatile movement behind.

  22. Dilly

    At the end of the day, they still have to work a job. You stop working, and the money stops coming in no matter what job it is. But, as you get older you realise that working is not the most important thing in the world.

  23. BirdCourter

    Male, 4 law degrees by age 22 and from Galway – must make me a Gladwellian outlier then. Thanks David:)

  24. joe sod

    the built environment, the roads, the railways, the buildings the monuments, the power stations and power lines, the food was all put there by and large by men. These occupations and professions are very under rated in modern society but modern society would collapse tomorrow without them. These men are really the silent workforce because by and large these jobs are done and nobody recognises it, no wonder we have an epidemic of male suicides

You must log in to post a comment.
× Hide comments