SILENTLY, almost imperceptibly, a revolution is sweeping Britain as well as most western countries. Signs of this seismic change have been growing, but until one stops and quantifies them, the implications do not become immediately clear.
A recent issue of the Spectator spelled it out: British women are poised to become the principal wage-earners in the majority of households. The weekly’s cover shows a muscle-flexing woman with a wad of cash in one hand.
Just a day before I saw the magazine, I had been discussing this phenomenon in another context with friends who had taken us to their houseboat on the Thames. There we went for a ride on their splendid wooden electric-powered motorboat. We passed several racing sculls being rowed by women, and our host commented that ten years ago, there were hardly any women rowers on the river.
The rise of the number of British women now participating in competitive sports was reflected in their fine performance in the recent Olympics. Often, one sees young women jogging in shorts in cities and the countryside. When we go for a walk in the narrow country lanes around Devizes, women on horseback is a common sight.
We recently had to seek advice regarding a petty legal matter, and went to the local law firm. Here, we encountered a number of young women lawyers. It’s the same story at most National Health Service clinics and hospitals where the majority of nurses and doctors seem to be women.
More sobering than these personal observations are the statistics mentioned in the Spectator article. For instance, 58 per cent of all undergraduates at college and university are women They also make up 56 per cent of all medical students and 50 per cent of trainee barristers. Currently, 46 per cent of the entire workforce are women, up from 37 per cent forty years ago.
The social implications of this sea change are staggering. Although on average, men earn 10 per cent more than women, this difference is changing fast. Women are now marrying at 30 on average, and are having to choose from among a pool where they now outnumber men. Many are simply deciding not to marry, but live alone rather than commit for a lifetime.The first stage of this social transformation happened after the world wars of the 20th century when wartime duties and attrition among men forced women to work in factories. Then in the sixties, the advent of the pill liberated women from unwanted pregnancies. Now they could shape their careers and decide when they wanted to have babies.
Better academic performance among women, coupled with the outsourcing of many physical jobs, gave them an edge in the job market. In fact, girls overtook boys in the school-leaving GCSE exams in the mid-Eighties. Now they routinely outperform boys in virtually every school and university exam.
Traditionally, women have always been the homemakers, bringing up children, cooking and cleaning while their husbands were the breadwinners. But these roles are undergoing a profound change as tradition clashes with new social and economic realities.Now that physical strength is no longer needed in the computerised workplace, women are competing with men for jobs. Often, they are given preference as they are considered better employees, and are less likely to cause problems.
For many years now, as women have been joining the job market in greater numbers, men have been contributing to the housework and to child-rearing. The kitchen and the nursery are no longer ‘women-only’ zones. Fathers increasingly take their children on walks, and venture into the kitchen.
The real strain on a marriage or a long-term relationship comes when the male partner is out of a job. Robbed of an important aspect of his masculinity, he is prone to depression and drinking. A study shows that men who are out-earned by their wives or female partners are more likely to seek treatment for erectile dysfunction.
These changes have yet to work their way through the political structures and the boardrooms of Britain. Although women are represented in parliament and the cabinet, their numbers are still relatively small. In the upper levels of the corporate world, both their presence and their emoluments are below those of their male colleagues. But this is likely to change as women enter the professions and the private sector in increasing numbers.
To an extent, many of these changes are taking place in the developing world. In Iran, women outnumber men in universities. In Pakistan, more and more women are joining banking and the civil service when they had traditionally tended to cluster in the medical and teaching professions.
One possible reason why South Asian women are not represented in the workplace in larger numbers could be that we have not gone through the wrenching experience of two world wars that killed and maimed millions of men. This one factor propelled European women into factories and offices far more rapidly than would have otherwise happened.
But in our part of the world, social pressures force women to play the dual roles of wage-earner as well as homemaker. Unfortunately, most Muslim men are not liberated enough to take the load off their working wives. And then working mothers have to put up with the guilt of not spending enough time with their children.