I am taken to task by the Guardian’s Ally Fogg for my Telegraph column on the growing underachievement of boys. It’s a thoughtful and spunky piece, which I thought worth replying to here. The phenomenon of male underperformance causes much angst on the left, demanding a choice between feminism and equality. For anyone born after Perry Como was in the charts, women are no longer underperforming. When law and medicine graduates are 60pc female, and girls a third more likely to apply to university than boys, we’re not looking at equality. We’re looking at a new inequality being incubated, because male horizons are narrowing. The notions of feminism and equality are becoming detached, which is horribly disorientating for some on the left. So what to do?

Mr Fogg starts by alerting his readers to the nature of the beast.

“For a traditional British conservative take on men’s issues, you can’t get much more pure than the editor of the Spectator writing in the Telegraph in defence of his chum Boris Johnson… The London mayor made a crass, sexist joke this week about Malaysian girls going off to university to find husbands.

Not quite. Boris’s point – that Malaysia is in trouble if two-thirds of its graduates are women – was not about their finding husbands on campus. He simply said that this ratio was a problem because “they’ve got to find men to marry” – and he meant years in the future. His point, which he made at length in the Telegraph six years ago, is that a “basic human prejudice” means these women are unlikely to settle down with non-graduates. So they may be disappointed. It’s worth quoting Boris at length, as this is a thoughtful point.

As a result of the female desire to procreate with their intellectual equals, the huge increase in female university enrolments is leading to a rise in what the sociologists call assortative mating. A snappier word for it is homogamy. Nice female middle-class graduates seem on the whole to be turning up their nice graduate noses at male non-graduates. And when the nice middle-class graduate couples get together, they have the double income to buy the houses and push the prices up — and make life even tougher for the non-graduates.

Boris was flagging up not just a social problem, but an economic one – assortative mating, that basic human prejudice, will fuel inequality. If there was a similarly incisive piece in the Guardian in 2007 about the inegalitarian implications of female dominance of universities, I didn’t read  it. As so often, Boris was far more thoughtful, far-sighted and – yes – progressive than his enemies.

Anyway, back to the Guardian’s Mr Fogg. He faults me thus:-

Nelson discusses the gender trends in education, employment and relationships for young people up to the age of 30, while completely ignoring that the picture changes profoundly when people have children.

Really? According to the ONS the average hourly pay for women in their thirties (the decade when most have children) is just 0.7pc less than that for men. This is not statistically significant. That is to say that British women in their thirties, a childbearing decade, are earning as much as men. For the under-40s, the pay gap has vanished. And in their 20s, women earn marginally more than men as the effects of their superior education filters into the economy.

The market value for testosterone has never been lower. It’s true that there is a pay gap for women born before 1973. But the point of my piece is that things have not just equalised since but swung the other way. But Mr Fogg knows that. As he says:-

While noting that boys at the top are still doing just fine, Nelson never acknowledges that the problems are fundamentally economic and class-based.

I thought CoffeeHousers would like an example of how, in my Telegraph piece, I ‘never’ recognised the economic and class-base aspects to the gender split. I say:-

Gender equality is a very real concept among the rich, who now live in a world where young men and women do as well as each other. But among poor families, boys are falling further and further behind – and are 30 per cent less likely to apply for university than girls. Yes, office jobs may replace factory jobs, so the economy ticks over. But what about teenagers not cut out for university, who used to go straight into a trade? They struggle to find a role in society.

My whole point is that this affects the poor far more than the rich, so anyone concerned about equality should be concerned about the disproportionately high number of women sitting A-Levels, applying for university and then graduating. And that deindustrialisation has left those boys not cut out for university with pitifully few options. Mr Fogg paraphrases me thusly:-

The fundamental problem Nelson identifies is that our society no longer has a pressing need for the attributes of traditional working-class masculinity: brute strength, endurance and courage in the workplace; a provider’s role at home. There are two possible solutions to that. The first would be an economic project to revitalise British manufacturing industry, especially heavy industry, which has shrunk by two-thirds over the past 30 years… The right sacrificed the prospects of young working-class men when they abandoned a controlled economy to the whims of the global free market.  

Oh, these wicked Tories! In fact, the loss of British manufacturing jobs was far more aggressive under Labour. Mr Fogg says that helping manufacturing would be ‘anathema’ to us wicked right-wingers, presumably because our black hearts leap at the sight of closed factories. In fact, I’m all for an ‘economic project’ to revive industry. I’d call it ‘fracking for shale’ and it could bring as many jobs to the north as it has to the US rustbelt.

I shall not comment on his plans for a “a social project to reinvent masculinity and gender roles in keeping with the world we have built” - although I do love the idea of Ed Balls ended up as the Minister for Redefining Masculinity. Lasagne for everyone!

I agree with the rest of Mr Fogg’s piece: that David Lammy and Dianne Abbot ought to be congratulated for highlighting the issue. That “the spectacularly unequal outcomes for girls and boys in education are now beyond dispute.” He finishes with an anecdote which expresses the problem far better than I managed to:-

My elder son finishes primary school next week, and nervously prepares himself to enter the furnace of secondary education. Like all 11-year-olds, he has spent much of the last year being prodded and tested with Sats and other blunt tools like a white mouse in a lab. After one such experiment, he told me proudly of his success. “I scored highest of all the boys,” he proclaimed. After due expressions of support, I couldn’t resist asking about his other classmates. “Oh yes, lots of the girls scored more than me, but they always do. Girls are just cleverer than boys.” Before even leaving primary school he has absorbed a corrosive and pervasive myth about what should be expected from boys and girls. It’s my responsibility to correct him on that. It is our collective responsibility to work out where the myth has come from and what we can do to put it right.”

I do plead guilty to one of his charges: that I don’t have an easy solution. I’m just saying that we need to recognise the problem. My generation, the over-40s, were brought up equating feminism with equality. But now, the fight for equality means looking out for the young men. How you do this is a very open question. But that it needs to be done ought to be something on which left and right can agree.

Tags: Boris Johnson, Bridget Jones, Gender, Generation Y, Pay Gap