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April 01, 2011

David Willetts: you are no Germaine Greer

Universities and science minister David Willetts has landed in hot water over his remarks about feminism ahead of the launch of the UK government’s social mobility strategy.

But this is not the first time ‘Two Brains’ has courted controversy with his views on the effects of feminism on work, life and the family.

Willetts spoke about the importance of family at the 2008 Conservative party conference, where he reportedly linked the surge in female graduates to family breakdown. On rising unemployment among men, he is quoted at the conference as saying: “They are no longer given the opportunity to bring home the bacon, and the evidence is that that is bad for families.”

If Willetts takes this view on family life in general, can we really expect him to be proactive in encouraging women and girls to take up careers in science?

Learned societies are addressing the problem and suggesting ways to make the path to the top easier for women who take time out to have a family.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has even set up an equalities working group to make sure that the Research Excellence Framework that is currently under development does not discriminate against women.

But how much is any of this worth if the man overseeing it all thinks a “lady” needs a measuring cylinder when it’s time to bake a cake.

Last year he oversaw the removal of funding for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering & Technology. His comments today will only add fuel to existing concerns that while Willetts may not be anti-feminist, he is failing to consider his policies from a female perspective.

Willetts’ book, The Pinch—How the baby boomers took their children's future and why they should give it back, does not offer much hope either.

In fairness, this is not a book about women and you’d hardly expect Willetts to have taken a degree in women's studies before writing it. But it is a book about family, about marriage and about how attitudes have changed during the baby boomers' life span. Furthermore, it is a book written by a man who is often praised for being well-read in social and historical theory. A quick glance at his references shows that this does not necessarily extend to feminist theory.

I came away with the feeling that women and women's history are surprisingly absent from the book. Is it really possible to produce a thesis on family values, whether speaking in economic terms or not, without thinking about women?

My concern was raised early on when Willetts suggests that the invention of the pill was not responsible for changing patterns in sexual behaviour. “A better explanation is that there were more young men in good jobs at an early age than at any other time in the twentieth century,” Willetts informs us.

To take such a dismissive tone with female sexuality is certainly a bold move. How many women would agree that the main motivation for seeking contraceptive independence back then was to catch themselves a decent husband? I’d wager, not that many.

Willetts later discusses the results of a more recent survey of 25-year-old women. According to the survey, they had had an average of eight partners and two-thirds had had a one-night stand. “But 90 per cent said that they would like to get married and that they then expected their marriage to be faithful,” he tells us, with apparent surprise.

These two facts are presented as somehow mutually exclusive, or are, at the very least, unnatural bedfellows. This twenty-something reader was left rolling her eyes that we are still having this discussion.

In a later bid to get female readers on side, Willetts drops in a few casual references to Bridget Jones and Sex and the City. When discussing the latter, he suggests that underneath all their bolshy chatter, the four main characters in the groundbreaking HBO series really just wanted to settle down—and that this was the real appeal of the show.

In reality, we all stopped watching when Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda exchanged gallivanting around New York for the delights of family life. Viewers quickly lost interest when the free spirits they came to love in the first few series sold out and settled down. A major part of the backlash from the two film spin-outs from the series was due to the fact that the young women who had prioritised their careers for so long had become bored, materialistic wives.

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