Stop whingeing and stitch that bra

If men want to go on living with women, it will have to be as equal partners in the economy
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The Independent Online
The men were ex-miners from Nottingham, big, muscular and some of them tattooed. Sitting in rows at their workbenches, they had moved from one traditional Nottingham type of work to another. Now they were stitching bright pink lacy bra and pants sets, destined for Marks and Spencer. From Nottingham pits to Nottingham lace, their meaty hands were learning delicate new tasks.

These men were fiercely defensive: "If this is what it takes to keep my family, then I'll do it!" one said, jutting out his jaw at me as if defying anyone to pity or to mock.

We shall see more of that as work in heavy industry and manufacturing (now only 18 per cent of jobs) gives way to a growth of work in the services, retailing, leisure and catering (75 per cent of jobs). This week Incomes Data Services produced a new analysis which found that women employees now outnumber men in 25 of the nation's regions and counties, and this is a galloping trend. By 1997 women will have overtaken men nationally.

Is this the revolution? Is this the gender-quake? Various prophets of doom have pointed to this trend as a sign that the monstrous regiment has finally done men in. Emasculated (low sperm count), excluded from the family (all those single mums), failing at school (girls get better exam results), what is left of manhood? And now women have taken men's work, too.

However, reports of the death of man are much exaggerated. Unpick the statistics and the headline figures become very nearly damn lies. The number of working-age women in jobs has catapulted up in the past 20 years to 71 per cent. But the proportion of women in full-time jobs has remained absolutely steady. A high proportion of these new part-time jobs are low paid, not providing nearly enough to keep a family. These new jobs for women are not bread-winning jobs at all, not sod-the-father, go-it-alone, have-it-all-and-a-baby-too jobs. They are jobs that most women can afford to take only if they are living with a working, breadwinning man.

Such is the perversity of the tax and benefits system that those women who most need to work because their partners are unemployed, or they haven't got a partner, are all but prevented from taking jobs, while those with working partners are the ones who find it easiest. What we have here are job-rich and job-poor households. When a man loses his job in a household with a mortgage his wife has to give up her job immediately (unless she is an untypically high earner), since her part-time earnings would simply be deducted from his benefit entitlement, and she'd be wasting her time.

All this, heavily disguised, is a portrait of the same old women's dependency culture. Once women have children, most of them still have to lean on a man or the state to survive. Of the women who really need to earn - the lone parents - a smaller proportion are actually working than 20 years ago. In terms of money, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that in the average household 20 years ago, women brought in pounds 1 in every pounds 4 of the joint income. This has increased to pounds 1 in every pounds 3 - an improvement, but hardly one that signals the wholesale redundancy of men.

Power-women chic dominates our perceptions of the real world around us. All those images of women prison governors, football managers or chief inspectors on television distort our vision. There are more women in good jobs than there were, mainly because of the general upward shift in the labour market: one-third of all work now is managerial and professional. But only a third of those jobs go to women, while women still do more than two-thirds of the secretarial and sales work. That hardly justifies the dominatrix fixations of the scriptwriters.

Maybe a new generation of young women will do better? After all, three- quarters of the huge growth in graduates recently has been among women. The casual assumption is that they will work their way through to equality before long, no problem. However, the IFS suggests some may but many may not. Young women blithely assume everything will be fine - until they try motherhood for themselves and find it isn't. Having children drastically damages your earning power.

What's more, according to the IFS a high and probably increasing proportion of women over 45 are caring for an elderly relative - no sooner free of children than encumbered by a parent. That's the trouble with this subject - whinge, whinge and more whinge. The more closely you examine the figures, the more depressing the picture.

But the figures are not the whole story. The extraordinary fact remains that despite the economics, there has been a revolution. Women may not have enough money, power or financial independence, but the men are right to be frightened. This is a social revolution that defies all theories of history: it happened without a fundamental economic shift. Ideas alone have fuelled and sustained it, the circuses without the bread.

Earning money part-time may not bring independence of a partner, but it shifts the terms of the relationship in dangerous ways. Gone are the days of waiting for him to give her the housekeeping. It may not be enough to live on, but emotionally those part-time earnings can change everything. She becomes a real person, with a real role in the outside world, with new obligations and friends, even if the job is humble. Divorce often follows this unsettling turbulence. Economically, this is a catastrophe for women and children, hurling most of them into the depths of poverty. But, rashly, women are putting freedom before finance, with wives initiating 70 per cent of divorces.

None of this makes sense. It is all a recipe for social calamity and unhappiness for men, women and children. Something has to give. Either women have to return to family values and acknowledge their economic destiny - dependence on men. Or else they have to be able to earn enough to support themselves and their children.

Men have to adapt to this strange new world, and that is why equality in everything is not a boring whinge but the only hope there is. So far the clash in expectations leaves men still insufficiently adapted and as a result even the fiercest economic whip has not thrust women back into unhappy marriages. So if the taxpayer doesn't want to bear the growing burden, then women have to earn the same as men. (This is why refusing to sign up to the EU social chapter is a shortsighted mistake.)

Social anxiety rightly focuses now on the young men with no jobs, no chance of growing up and no chance that any sensible women will ever want to keep them. But that is the frightening fall-out of chronic under-education and unemployment, not women's fault. Sorry about the sperm count and all the rest of it, but if men want to go on living with women then it has to be as equal partners, emotionally, financially and in the jobs they do, right down to the stitching of pink bras.

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