Man Smart, Woman Smarter

Have you ever seen the cover for Robert Palmer’s classic album ‘Pressure Drop’? The sleeve features a shapely woman – naked except for a pair of high heels – staring out of the hotel room window while the be-suited singer changes the TV channel. In the famous video for his big hit ‘Addicted to Love’, he’s backed a band of leggy models made up to look like mannequins. So, perhaps political correctness was not the late blue-eyed soul singer’s strong point.

Yet, maybe Palmer always regarded his image as a ladies-man as a joke. A serious scholar of popular music, he updated the 1930s calypso standard ‘Man Smart’ for the mid-70s. The chorus runs:

It ain’t me. It’s the people that say
The men are leading the women astray.
But I say, it’s the women today

Are smarter than the men in every way.
That’s right – the women are smarter.

Culturally, it’s hardly a new idea. Domestically, women have often ruled the roost. From time to time too, individual females from Bodicea to Baroness Thatcher have enjoyed real political and socio-economic power. More commonly though, across the centuries, plays, poems and lyrics have celebrated and bemoaned ‘womanly wiles’ – popularising the notion that females have more sexual power than males, if only by denial. The invention of The Pill and the 60’s cultural changes may have further confused sexual control with social dominance. And today, in our own overtly sexualised culture, ‘girl-power’ may seem eye-poppingly unavoidable.

But it’s not just in the mating game that modern women appear to have the upper hand.

Back in the 70’s, more men participated in higher education than women. Today, the pattern is reversed. More women are going on to higher education than men (nearly 50% of  females vs fewer than 40% of men). Once at college, the girls do better than the boys too. More women complete their studies than men. Similarly, in proportion to the population, women should account for 49% of First Class degrees awarded: they actually receive 56% of the top qualifications.

Women are also over-represented in some areas of higher education that can lead to higher salaries including law and clinical subjects such as veterinary medicine where 75% of new entrants are women. As a result, women make up almost half of the country’s GPs, lawyers, judges, coroners and scientists.

With demise of heavy industry and the downturn in ‘manly’ industries such as construction, it’s now arguable that women are better adapted to the modern workplace than men. Brains and pliability are now more highly prized than brawn and aggression.

Men, in every sense of the word, are becoming redundant. From the pay packet to the sperm bank, women can now find ways to do without them.

The simplest cultural artefacts reflect both the new-found confidence of women and the diminishment of men in our society. From the ‘himbo’ of the Diet Coke ad to the clarion call of the Boots’ commercials, women are on the march. Even in ITV’s recent post-war drama ‘The Bletchley Circle’, it was hard not to be struck by the polarity of the gender portrayal: the clever, busy women working as a team to solve the murder, while all the men are either buffoons or beasts.

Perhaps males should also be jealous of “Women’s Hour” on Radio Four. Sure, there are plenty of programmes ostensibly for men but they are on topics such as football rather than being a man per se. A few weeks back, Noami Wolf talked about her new book: “Vagina: The Biography.” She says: “The vagina is the delivery system for the states of mind we call confidence, liberation, self-realisation and even mysticism in women… a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge and consciousness”. And no-one laughed. If a bloke talked about his crown jewels like that, he’d get locked up.

But, against changing perceptions of what it means to be a woman, or a man, Atlantic magazine writer Hannah Rosin delivers a more overt ‘kick in the nuts’ for the male of the species. Her new book is controversially titled ‘The End of Men’. Based on her research in middle America, she shows young females at college opting for a ‘hook-up’ culture of no-strings sex rather than relationships. She writes of women graduating and earning more than their feckless husbands. She sees men in the rust bowl of America’s devastated industries reduced from breadwinners to hangers-on.

The patchwork polemic weaves large conceits from thin threads of evidence. Yet, the tapestry of selective statistics and half-truths hides a more complex, less positive prospect not just for womanhood but for the whole of society.

The employment market has changed. The slide towards a service economy in Britain gathered pace in the Thatcher era and took out swathes of traditional ‘male industries’. For example, in the early 1970s, coal industry employment was over 300,000.By 2001, it was only 14,000. The growing service sector facilitated a rapid rise in female employment – from 56% in the 1970s to around 75% today, while male employment shrank from 95% to 83% over the same period.

However, there is a more subtle point. The rise of the working woman was helped by the shift towards business models that were administrative rather than competitive. Classically, female behaviours are viewed as more considered, compliant and cautious than men’s, and it’s arguable this modus operandi reinforced the rise of managerialism in the British economy. In his book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell points out the paradox that increasing ‘professionalisation’ produces disappointing results. ‘Best practice’ and risk-aversion kill competitive differentiation and stifle innovation. These ‘dead hands’ may not have painted fingernails but a culture of ‘consensus-building’ is not conducive to effective strategies: the rapid deployment of competitive insights which cannot wait for proof.

Doubtless, there are broad truths in the traditional gender differences in behavioural styles. But it’s as much of a caricature to suggest that all women are multi-tasking, organisational angels as it is to imply that all men are indisciplined bellends.

At the risk of stating the obvious, men and women are biologically different. Perhaps due to higher testosterone levels, men have historically undertaken the most life-threatening jobs. Today, they still train for technically demanding careers.

Official figures suggest that almost 100% of those studying for qualifications in construction, planning and the built environment are men. Around 90% of those studying engineering and manufacturing technology are men. Women tend more to study care-related qualifications in health and public services – gaining around 85% of all awards.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that 75% of all public sector workers are women.

And suddenly, we can see the argument unravelling. It’s not just working men who are the endangered species. The low pay, low skill, compliant service culture beloved by Old Etonians and paternalists everywhere will undo women’s progress – and then undo us all.

Earlier this year, female unemployment hit a 25 year high – with 1.2 million women out of work. More cuts are expected in the public sector, and women are likely to be hardest hit. In terms of pay equality, women still lag men, largely due to part-time working, as well as career breaks for children. Probably for similar reasons, females represent only 22% of MPs and only 15% of FTSE 100 boardrooms. A few women on top may be doing well, but across the globe – especially with the rise of militant Islam – women are suppressed and oppressed anew.

In Britain, in any commercial break, you can see the confusion at work. The modern paean to ‘girl-power’ – “Here Come The Girls” – sells a vision of sisterhood based on fake tan and make-up. But, in today’s economic foment, the changes in our society can’t just be cosmetic. For every woman to thrive, we need policies to protect and promote every member of society. Yes, even male members.