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Catherine Hakim: The Conservative Party should ignore discredited feminist myths and wake up to the fact that the gender war is over

Picture 1 Catherine Hakim is a Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, whose pamphlet, Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine: the flawed thinking behind calls for further equality legislation, was published by the Centre for Policy Studies this week. Her new book, Erotic Capital: a new theory of social interaction in everyday life, will be published by Penguin later this year.

We should celebrate. The gender war is over. In the UK, equal opportunity policies for women in the labour market have been remarkably successful. For the first time in our history, women are now free to take up any occupation or career on the same basis as men. Today, there are more female students than male students. The pay gap (at 10% of median earnings) is now marginal. In this and countless other ways, women and men enjoy comparable career opportunities in the UK.

But we are not celebrating this good news. Indeed, too many politicians still seem to be fighting the last war, inspired by a series of feminist myths, most of which have been discredited by the latest academic research. As I explain in my new report published by the Centre for Policy Studies, too many people assume that differences in men and women’s attainment of top jobs are treated as self-evident proof of widespread sex discrimination and sex-role stereotyping rather than the result of personal choices and preferences.

Thus, we hear calls to smash the glass ceiling, to eliminate the pay gap and to end sex differentials. Such calls are not only made by Harriet Harman and various Guardian journalists but have also been echoed in recent Conservative documents such as its 2010 manifesto supplement, A Contract for Equalities. This suggested that government imposition of quotas on corporate boards could help to tackle the gender pay gap. And in the autumn the Coalition invited Lord Davies of Abersoch to develop proposals for women on company boards.

The simple truth is that, despite feminist claims to the contrary, most men and women have different career aspirations and priorities.

Men and women tend to have different life-goals. Yes, some women – about a quarter – are careerist. But the great majority are not  - even in Sweden, even in the post-socialist European countries. And it is the attitudes and values of this majority of women that explain the remaining differentials in careers, achievements in the labour market and even earnings. Given such differences in what women actually want from their jobs, politicians should not expect the same job outcomes.

What is also interesting – and ignored by too many feminists – is that many modern and systematically  egalitarian societies do not necessarily do better on indicators of gender equality. For example, the country with the lowest level of occupational segregation in the world is China. The lowest pay gap in the world is in Swaziland, followed closely by Sri Lanka. In contrast, despite all its family friendly and equal opportunity policies, Sweden (and the other Nordic countries) does not have a better record than Anglo-Saxon countries in terms of eliminating sex differences in the labour market.  On the contrary, women are more likely to be promoted into the top jobs in Britain and the USA than in Sweden. Even Swedes now admit this.

So politicians should brush up on the latest research (my CPS report offers a useful summary!) and stop basing policy on outdated research. They should learn that fashionable policies – and many other policies intended to promote sex equality – at best have little impact and at worst are counter-productive and a waste of public funds . Not a good idea, especially in the current economic climate.


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