The new female ascendency

How will society be changed by the over-production of female graduates?

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

No group is more dangerous,” growled Theodore Dalrymple in 2014, “than the disgruntled literate.” Two years later, in Ages of Discord, the political scientist Peter Turchin made the same point, stating famously that “one of the most reliable predictors of state collapse and high political instability is elite overproduction”. 

The problem, as Dalrymple and Turchin both see it, is that the sharp elbowed bourgeoisie makes often considerable sacrifices to obtain an education, with the aim of then securing employment that affords status and compensation commensurate with that sacrifice. And when there are more sharp elbowed strivers than juicy jobs, the also-rans become restive. 

Turchin argues that this is the predicament in which America finds itself at present: with an excess of would be middle class courtiers, managers and nobles and too few desirable positions for them all to fill. He predicted in 2016 that this would drive a period of growing unrest as intra elite competition intensifies, that will peak in the 2020s.

American political events so far this decade have done nothing to dispel the impression that Turchin is onto something. But while he draws on American history to develop his thesis, one aspect of contemporary elite overproduction is historically unprecedented: the pronounced, and growing, overrepresentation of women.

A competing female elite

The sex ratio in American colleges was last balanced 50/50 in 1978, and women have outnumbered men every year since then. Today, women make up 57 per cent of the US student body. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that over the last year, the proportion of female-to-male college students on American two and four year courses has shifted even more markedly, to 59.5 per cent vs 40.5 per cent respectively. 

In 2007, the US census bureau estimated that two million more American women held bachelor’s degrees than men, and the year on year increase in this sex disparity has compounded the gap since then. At private four year colleges, the WSJ reports, the sex disparity in the 2020-21 intake grew to an average of 61 per cent. In the next two years, if the trend holds, two women will earn a college degree for every man.

Historically, highly qualified would-be-professionals and public sector administrators have been almost exclusively male. But the new American elite will be, as Samuel Goldman argued recently in The Week, female. If this system is not just producing an elite but — as Turchin argues — overproducing it, will the unprecedented prevalence of women among the “disgruntled literates” make any difference to the forms their disgruntlement takes? 

It’s by no means settled that the feminine soul is possessed only of sugar and spice and all things nice

The optimist might say, with 19th century American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that such a sex asymmetry can only be for the best. Stanton asserted in an 1868 essay that women are not just men’s equal but in fact morally superior, due to the naturally higher qualities of the “feminine” soul. “If a difference in sex involves superiority, then we claim it for woman,” she declared. 

In her view, it followed from this that feminising public life would make everything better. “The feminine element has but just begun to assert itself … and the world already feels the harmonizing influence,” she rejoiced. “Our governments are growing more democratic, religion more hopeful, literature more exalted, science more practical, and art more refined.”

But it’s by no means settled consensus that the feminine soul (if such a thing exists) is possessed only of “harmonising influence”, or (as the nursery rhyme has it) sugar and spice and all things nice. Evolutionary psychologists such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Harvard social scientist Joyce Benenson argue that on the contrary, women are every bit as competitive as men. We just go about it differently. 

In Benenson’s view, women’s physically smaller stature and the need to cooperate in many areas of social life have shaped women’s approach to competition over the course of human evolution, creating a tendency toward less confrontational styles of conflict than those typically pursued by men.

As Benenson put it in a 2013 paper: “Girls’ competitive strategies include avoiding direct interference with another girl’s goals, disguising competition, competing overtly only from a position of high status in the community, enforcing equality within the female community and socially excluding other girls.”

So if competition were taking increasingly female typical forms society wide, what might this aspect of our “harmonizing influence” look like in practice? One feature might be a shift away from overt hierarchy within institutions — something that has indeed been a trend in corporate life over recent decades. Mercer’s 2017 Global Talent Trends Study reported that a third of companies plan to flatten their organisational structure. In the corporate world, it seems hierarchy is out. 

A new office politics

Correlation does not equal causation. But if female typical social patterns of the kind described by Benenson were indeed exerting a growing influence on public life, then along with a drift away from overt hierarchy we’d expect office politics to take subtler forms: for example — as Benenson suggests — by enforcing equality and weaponising social ostracism. 

Again correlation isn’t causation; but this may shed some light on the growing phenomenon of high profile public figures shamed in recent years for past social media posts. In particular, it may shed light on the often uneven outcome of such incidents. 

Two recent examples serve to illustrate. In 2018, NYT writer Sarah Jeong was widely condemned for “historic” racist tweets; then earlier this year incoming Teen Vogue editor Alexi McCammond was lambasted for the same crime. But Jeong was defended by her employers, while McCammond was forced to resign. 

Viewed as an outsider, it’s hard to see what was more deplorable about the latter’s utterances. But what if the simple explanation is that Jeong’s colleagues liked her more than McCammond’s future staff liked her? That is, a proportion of what looks like culture war today may in fact be driven more by office politics. This would also help to explain why it so often seems to be the case that an individual’s “inappropriate” social media content is discovered and promulgated just as he or she is appointed to a sought after post.

One would expect office politics to intensify when good jobs are scarce. But where some respond to scarcity by fighting harder for existing resources, others may seek to deepen the pool. Here a look at the cradle of elite (over)production suggests something intriguing is afoot.

“Administrative bloat” has been a remarked on feature of higher education for some time. According to one 2014 study, the number of faculty and teaching staff per administrator fell roughly 40 per cent at most US colleges and universities between 1990 and 2012, and now stands at around 2.5 faculty members per administrator.

Less remarked on is the sex breakdown of the growing proportion of administrators. A recent diversity and inclusion report by the University of California indicates that women make up more than 70 per cent of non academic staff across (among others) nursing, therapeutic services, health, health technicians, communications services roles, and a majority or near majority across all non manual staff roles. In other words, if men are still over represented in top academic roles, the non academic supporting ecosystem is overwhelmingly female. 

And that support system has an increasingly symbiotic relationship with student activism, which over my lifetime has (on both sides of the Atlantic) shifted noticeably away from a focus on material conditions toward something more like the bureaucratic regulation of personal identity and interpersonal interactions. 

A 2015 look at student protesters across 51 campuses showed the most common demands — alongside greater diversity among faculty — were diversity training and cultural centres. In turn, this focus requires a ballooning staff tasked with managing identities, or variously supporting or disciplining types of relationship, for example via “consent” education: the roles where women predominate. 

In practice, then, as pursued within universities, one byproduct of student activism is something akin to a “jobs for the girls” scheme, in which a heavily female student body drives demand for more roles across feminised non-academic administrative roles, which in turn helps create an environment geared toward women, and so on. Or, as 2019’s “Afghanistan Papers” famously described that military campaign, a “self licking ice cream cone”.

Young alumnae graduating from this ecosystem might be expected to carry its insights out into professional life. And indeed, according to America’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, HR (a career whose employees are 71 per cent female, according to one industry report) is one of the fastest growing occupations in the country.

Within that field, the fastest growing sub discipline is diversity and inclusion. A list of “2019’s Most Influential Diversity Professionals” published by Hive Learning, offers us 13 men and 63 women. And a principal task of diversity professionals is increasing the job opportunities available for women, and especially of women engaged in diversity work. 

For example the principal message delivered by most speakers at a “Diversity in Maritime Lunch and Learn” session, held during September 2021’s London International Shipping Week, was the vital importance of creating more openings within the shipping sector for young female graduates. A seemingly unstoppable drive is afoot, it appears, to supply every major public institution and corporation with a self licking ice cream cone analogous to the one now present in elite US colleges.

The end of marrying up?

So what? you might ask. Why should it matter if future elites are heavily female? One may debate whether intra class warfare will be more or less unpleasant if conducted in either female or male typical modes. More unpredictable, though, is the question of how a growing preponderance of elite women may affect relations between the sexes. 

What happens when a scrabble for resources between social classes becomes, increasingly, also a war between the sexes?

This is not to suggest that men are universally curmudgeons who would resent women being successful. But returning for a moment to US colleges, it’s striking that the only non academic job types the University of California lists in its diversity report as more than 70 per cent male are labourers, maintenance and security: working class roles. The same holds at UCLA, where maintenance roles have more than three times as many male as female staff, and security nearly five times, while women outnumber men in healthcare and staff services roles by a factor of around three to one. 

Of course plenty of industries are still relatively male dominated. But according to 2016 Pew research, the pool of American manual jobs has shrunk by around a third since 1990, while the number of knowledge and skill based jobs has roughly doubled. That is, the employment opportunities as well suited to graduate women as men are growing even as viable work of the kind traditionally done by non elite men keeps shrinking. 

What happens when a scrabble for resources between social classes becomes, increasingly, also a war between the sexes? We may have glimpsed the foothills of that terrain in the 71 per cent of working class white men who supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, compared to the 23 per cent who voted for her. 

Another second order effect of this shift may be intensifying female competition in the field of love as well as work. Twentieth century social scientists assumed that women’s common Jane Austen-style desire to “marry up” was a side effect of exclusion from the workforce, and that women would be content to marry less high flying spouses once they were able to earn their own money. 

Recent data, though, suggests that this is not the case: one cross cultural study of 37 societies showed that women in all of them placed a higher value on the financial prospects of a prospective mate than men did. Evolutionary psychologists argue that these preferences are not contingent effects of patriarchal oppression, but adaptive strategies evolved over millennia. 

A troubling picture of lonely, frustrated people of both sexes, growing increasingly dissatisfied with their prospects for love and family life

If so, they won’t disappear overnight. What happens, then, when women’s very success within the elite results in a relative scarcity of high status men? One possible by-product of this dynamic would a subset of men excluded from any realistic prospect of finding a partner. Data published by the Institute of Family Studies in 2018 bears this out: celibacy has been roughly stable for decades among females, but has climbed sharply and disproportionately for males — a fact largely attributable to the decline of youthful marriage. 

How much of that is down to men’s share of status and resources shrinking? It’s hard to say; but considerably less hard to find articles written by young women bemoaning the dearth of desirable men. “Why Are So Many Professional Millennial Women Unable To Find Dateable Men?”, asked Larissa Faw at Forbes in 2012. The short answer may be: because professional millennial women now outnumber men among the elite, and tend to dismiss the growing proportion of lower status men as unworthy life partners. 

Extrapolating this tendency offers a troubling picture of lonely, frustrated people of both sexes, growing increasingly dissatisfied with their prospects for love and family life while each group blames the other. Not a recipe for happy ever after.

Britain: heading the same way 

Lest you think this is only America’s problem, for America to solve, Britain is heading in the same direction. In absolute terms, Britain sends more than half of its young people to university — an extremely high rate of elite (over)production — and as such may well be in line for a dose of the kind of turmoil Turchin predicts. But where women have outnumbered men in American higher education since 1978, in the UK women first outnumbered men in 1996. Since then, though, according to UK government data, the graduate sex gap has grown to around 87,000 students — around 36 per cent more women than men. Even leaving aside the enthusiasm with which America exports its cultural norms worldwide, the same structural factors are emerging here as well.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that our present condition of escalating culture war could be cured simply by educating fewer women. Tipping the sex balance back the other way does nothing to cure the fundamental excess of would be elites competing for too few jobs. And one need not ascribe to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “sugar and spice” vision of the female sex to wonder whether reshaping intra-class competition along feminised lines may not be the least worst option. Female intrasexual competition may be as fierce as its male counterpart, but does at least have the merit of being less prone to physical violence. 

Regardless, a wiser long term solution would be to address the absolute over production of “disgruntled literates”. Meanwhile, those middle aged conservatives baffled by the turn public life seems inexplicably to have taken toward unwritten rules, mystified hierarchies, public ostracism, moral mobbing and bullying cloaked in kindness might do well to recall the words of Karl Marx. In the preface to his 1859 Critique of Political Economy, Marx argued that moral and cultural changes are less a cause of social transformation than their effect: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” 

Female typical competition is increasingly prevalent in public life. This is changing both the material conditions of working life, and more generally, the very structures and priorities of “work” as such. And it’s changing relations between the sexes. But this is not a malignant conspiracy so much as an effect of systemic factors impervious to the surface froth of culture war. In other words: get used to it.

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