THOSE, like me, of a nerdy disposition may just remember a storm in a teacup earlier this year when the higher education minister David Willetts triggered outrage by suggesting feminism was to blame for helping keep working class men down.
He was arguing that when universities expanded in the 1960s-1980s, the extra places went not to bright kids from poorer backgrounds but mostly to middle class girls: the kind whose brothers might once have gone to college, while they were steered off into nursing or secretarial work. The heavens duly opened, as Willetts was accused of suggesting that bumptious women were trampling poor hard-done-by men beneath their stiletto heels in the race to the top.
At the time, I felt sympathy for Willetts, firstly because he is one of the least chauvinistic male politicians I've met (and boy, I've met a few) and secondly because his facts (if not necessarily the headlines) were broadly correct. There are many reasons poorer boys don't get on in life, mostly nothing to do with women, but one is that middle class kids of both sexes hoover up all the prizes from kindergarten onwards. But there's a fascinating piece of research out today from the thinktank Resolution Foundation* which puts the other side of this story.
It looks at earnings mobility, or how able people are to 'earn' their way up the social ladder - how easy it is, say, to start out on the shop floor and end up as the boss - among two groups: one born in the late 1950s who would now be in their 50s, and the generation born in 1970 who would have just turned 40 now. The good news is that the Seventies kids were more likely to work their way up: the bad news is that men were 40 per cent more likely than women to do so ( the gap was even bigger for the Fifties-born), and those on middling to high salaries to start with were a lot more likely to rise than those starting at the bottom. In other words, you can rise from humble beginnings to the top: but it helps to be both a bloke, and not that humble to start with. So much for the all-conquering rise of wimmin.
It's not completely clear why women couldn't climb as fast as men, but here's a big fat clue: if you switched to part-time work from a full-time job during the last decade, you were 30 per cent more likely to slide back down the ladder. And it's working mothers who are by far the most likely to go part-time. (Although the study didn't find a major link between having children and falling behind, its authors say that's because it began tracking people after they were 30, and many women would by then already have children and so would have already taken the hit).
So we're left with a picture of young women as hares - racing ahead initially, snaffling up the best university places (unsurprisingly, since they do better at Alevel than boys), setting out full of promise - only to be overtaken further down the line by tortoise men, creeping ahead of them during the babymaking years. It's a pattern many women will recognise in their own lives: and while children don't explain everything, they are clearly a big part of the jigsaw which wasn't acknowledged back in spring.
There is one note of cheer for beleaguered hares, however: while women clearly do still pay a heavy price for working part-time, Seventies children who reduced their hours suffered less for it than the Fifties generation, which the report suggests might be due to better quality part time work becoming available. In other words if more parents could hang on to decent well-paid jobs despite doing a three-day week, hares as well as tortoises might yet make it to the finishing line.
*Quick declaration of interest: I have no financial links with Resolution, but I am currently sitting on a policy commission for them, unpaid.