Pooh bear’s evil twin and the sexism saga

I’ve called Boris Johnson an evil Winnie the Pooh before, here (in the entirely serious 100% pure grade horse) and on Twitter. His “joke” that women attend university to find husbands is a bee hive for him to have stuck his hand in but if he bumbles around like a bear of very little brain, he hopes we’ll see how sweet he is and rescue him. Personally, I wouldn’t even give him an antihistamine.

Why did I go to university? Well, the name of this blog’s a hefty clue (one which Boris Bear probably wouldn’t decipher unless I pinned Eeyore’s tail to my laptop and left it open with my blog on screen). I did a law degree in order to become a solicitor. Did I expect to meet someone to marry at university? No. I’d already met the man I thought at the time I’d marry. He didn’t go to university with me, or at all for that matter, and was already 22 when I started my degree. It’s hardly uncommon to leave school already thinking you’ve met the person you want to spend your life with. I admit I did go to university where my then boyfriend lived, knowing that if we broke up I’d still love the city, but I don’t think that’s what Boris Bear had in mind. According to fuzzy bear logic (bear with me: I’m not mixing my bears – Fozzie has nothing to do with this), I presumably should have married him at 18 and skipped university and a future career.

Did my degree help me “find a husband” after we split up? Uh, no. At best I’d say it’s a neutral thing but it can even be a negative. Boris Bear’s happy in his image. He’s turned an apparent lack of intellectual rigour into what many regard as a charming quirk. Maybe I should’ve taken a leaf out of his book and dumbed down a bit because coming top of the year in law can make you seem intimidatingly bright and make some men insecure and hyper competitive (at least the grade’s less of an issue now than it once was), not all men but enough to make Boris Bear’s comment more laughable. You know what my only cast iron criteria for a man is? It’s that he’s comfortable in his own life. I don’t have a “Iist” because I’m more about instincts, except for that one thing. I don’t care what academic qualifications he has, what he does for a living or how much he earns. I just want to not have to deal with hang ups over my job or academics.

I suppose Boris Bear would suggest I should’ve sat about looking pretty (which another ex liked to tell me to do as a bitter little joke) instead of working hard (although if bumbling is key, my accident prone nature means I’ve done everything but winsomely get my head stuck in a honey pot…don’t ask about cookie jars though) but I wanted to not be bored and to be self-sufficient. Boris Bear may be acquainted with barbie dolls with hollow heads but I have more in common with Tigger. I see women like that around – they seem to help keep the £4 billion beauty service industry ticking over – and I honestly don’t think I could be what another blogger recently described and I recognised from the gyms, coffee shops and salons of Herts: a parasite wife. I might not have Tigger’s physical bounce but my mind could take him in a jump off. I need activity. I’d only get into trouble without it.

I suppose I should be grateful Boris Bear doesn’t want to laugh us women back to the drawing rooms of Jane Austen. I can’t paint or play an instrument or sing a note. I’m rubbish at needlepoint. Given my propensity for humour of the bleaker and bluer kind, maybe Boris Bear would cast me as the perfect wench back in those days where careers for women were an absurdity.

Someone should really tell Boris Bear that more women have been attending university than men for 20 years now. Many are like me – they want to do something which can only be done with a degree. Boris Bear’s comments bring another point to mind. Earlier this year it was reported that a significantly higher level of workplace inequality exists for women without degrees than women who have them. It stuck in my mind because I wasn’t happy with the way was reported and this seems to be down to how the IPPR (which carried out the study) framed it’s conclusions, rather than the press. The first place I saw it was the Independent but I can hardly blame them or any other paper (eg the Guardian) for liking the catchy claim that feminism had failed working class women. The results seem quite stark. There is a much bigger paygap between graduate and non graduate women than there is between graduate and non graduate men. What struck me as odd was that the comparison was one between graduate and “unskilled” people. I say it’s odd because I can only assume they lumped all skilled non-graduates into the “unskilled” category. It seems to me that doing this skews the results because there are more skilled jobs which pay well but which don’t require degrees in traditionally male industries like engineering and construction.

It’s not enough to say feminism hasn’t focussed on the pay of women on unskilled jobs. Couldn’t we be asking questions about the career paths other young women are being set on? Does that £4 billion a year beauty services industry really need even more young women to enter it? Could they earn more and achieve more if they were encouraged into more male dominated areas? It might seem like an inconvenient argument, bound to lead to complaints from some quarters that we women want to take over all aspects of working life. The reality is that some skilled technical and engineering jobs don’t have enough talented people in them, men or women.

The lack of opportunities for women in certain skilled non-graduate jobs isn’t the only factor in statistics like this though. In skilled jobs traditionally dominated by women which didn’t always involve degrees, like teaching and nursing, degrees are now normal. This moves those women onto the graduate side of the scale and, I would imagine, lowers the average rate of pay on the non graduate side.

I’ve had a look at Chapter 1 of the IPPR study since publishing late last night (the Report, 71 pages in total, can be downloaded here) and it’s own press release didn’t do it justice. The figures I’ve just mentioned do specifically refer to graduates and non-graduates so my concerns about those figures are relevant but it’s a detailed and interesting assessment which notes, quite rightly, that the expansion of the service industry generally pushed more women without degrees into low income and often part time jobs, while simultaneously helping more women with degrees into professional managerial positions.

Whatever the reasons, when you look at the size of the pay differential and the nature of the work non-graduate women are pressed into, is it really any wonder women do degrees Boris Bear? Of course, between tuition fees and high unemployment among graduates, we may well see a reduction in the number of women doing degrees. If degrees really were just about bagging a husband, that might not be such a bad thing but there’s every chance it’ll be a tragedy for many young women with potential, just as much as it’ll be a tragedy for young men who decide not to gamble on a pile of student debt. The question remains whether there will be any corresponding rise in pay for capable women without degrees as that happens. I’m not hopeful.

All this it makes me wonder how Tigger put up with Pooh. Of course, his silly old bear wasn’t the evil one.

14/7 The funny thing about this post is that I realised I was bloody angry when I wrote it – I’ve edited out some of the rough edges in the original – but that I wasn’t really that angry about what Boris said on this particular occasion. He was out of line, yes, but that wasn’t what made me angry. It even gave me an opportunity to mention the IPPR research, which I hadn’t done yet. What really makes me angry, what set me off in this case, is the Boris Bear phenomenon. Boris Johnson is being tipped as a contender for the leadership of the Tory party. There are people who actually see him as a potential prime minister. This “joke” of his wasn’t just sexist. He made it in a context which would make Prince Philip proud. So, when I rage against a throwaway comment, I do it because I genuinely fear the prospect of this man being given greater power for no better reason than the fact that people who aren’t affected by his decisions in London think he’s a lovable rogue who makes the odd gaffe every now and then.


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