Take a comic bestseller based on the age-old trauma of being left on the shelf that has sold nearly 5 million copies worldwide, strip it of all its humour, and what are you left with? Enter James Tooley with his take on modern womanhood - The Miseducation of Women . Tooley's theory is that the feminist-driven education policies of the modern day are forcing the Bridget Jones generation into careers at the expense of families and their own happiness.
Tooley is evangelical in his approach. The old "I don't want to have to say this but it's for your own good" rears its ugly head. It is a pity because he has some thought-provoking things to say on the dilemmas that face young women, and on 21st-century attitudes towards home and family. His delivery, however, almost kills the argument. There are countless bitter snipes at feminists, and the well-researched facts and theories are used in an "I-told-you-so" manner.
Tooley believes that women are naturally inclined to find fulfilment in home and family and that they are being denied this through gender-neutral education and a push towards careers in secondary schools. He heaps venom on policies designed to promote equal opportunities: "All teachers should ensure that they do not discourage pupils from considering non-traditional careers." And: "Teachers must make sure that children's games 'avoid reinforcing traditional sex roles', so that nurses must not always be girls, or doctors boys." Tooley presents such quotes as if they in themselves should make us gasp in horror at the injustice being perpetrated in our schools. Am I missing something? Is this supposed to be radical brainwashing advice? If a boy expressed an interest in nursing, would Tooley have him told he really ought to be a doctor?
Tooley goes on to say that in spite of these measures, statistically girls still tend to choose arts subjects and boys sciences. Such biases may suggest some biological inclination towards particular subjects, though I imagine the reasons are far more complex than Tooley suggests. He backs up his theory with a lengthy look at the evidence for biological difference between men and women. All the old favourites are there - men are better at mathematics, women at languages, women's pupils dilate when they see babies, men's do not. Women are 100 per cent sure their offspring are theirs, men are not and so may go elsewhere and "create some more". Women look for older men with status and money, men look for young, fertile women.
But where exactly do such facts and figures take us in terms of education policy? One of the strangest things about Tooley's book is that, after going to great lengths to divide men and women into neat little categories, he fails to offer any comprehensive vision of how our education system should be practically designed to accommodate such difference. He makes some references to increasing flexibility in assessment methods and to curricular freedom, which are points worth exploring in greater detail, but that is pretty much it.
Neither is the career woman a product of hard-core equality feminism, as Tooley thinks. If you were to assume without question that the world of work is a "male sphere", you may indeed think, as he does, that career-oriented women are merely trying to ape men. Tooley's argument fails because he never questions why the office is viewed as "the men's world". Even if you were inclined to categorise women as emotional communicators and men as aggressive doers, is there not a place in the world of work for both these types? Or is everyone so very uncomplex as to fit neatly into such categories? Might not someone move between categories at different stages of their lives depending on circumstance or a combination of circumstance and biological inclination? It is possible to relish motherhood and to be competitive. It is also possible to like sewing and science. This is ultimately where Tooley falls down, because he leaves no room for such "contradictions" in his blue-and-pink world.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Baby Hunger is far more accommodating. Hewlett is the daughter of a "charismatic, unconventional" Welsh schoolmaster. After the birth of his sixth daughter, he seems to have thrown in the towel and accepted that he was not going to have any sons. In Hewlett's words: "He had feminist instincts before they were fashionable and told us with enormous force and clarity that we had to get ourselves an education."
Like Tooley, Hewlett is concerned with dissatisfaction among women - in this case, the first generation to have started chipping away at the glass ceiling of corporate America and Britain: the "breakthrough generation". She was inspired to carry out research on such women and on high-flying younger women after a reunion with Cambridge female graduates at which the hot topic was the "difficult trade-offs they had experienced in their lives: between love and work, between career and children". Of this group of several hundred old Girtonians, 33 per cent did not have children. That figure rose to 55 per cent among those in full-time employment. Some 90 per cent of this childless group said they regretted not having children. These figures far exceed the percentage of women in the population that does not have children, so it seems that there may indeed be some connection between childlessness and education.
So, is the solution less education, different education? No, there is no going back to gender-based education for old Girtonian, mother-of-five, economist Hewlett. She is more concerned with what happens to women post-education. First, she points the finger at lack of flexibility in the workplace and its long-hours culture. Second, and less sternly, at the fact that women with partners and children still do the lion's share of housework and childcare; the generation that strove to have it all has ended up "doing it all". Finally, at women themselves - for their failure to plan for children and their unrealistic expectations of fertility.
This final point seems strange coming from a woman who had her last child at 51. But Hewlett is careful to present herself as very much the exception. Between 1989 and 1999, fewer than 200 US women over 50 succeeded in having a baby. Of the women Hewlett surveyed, 89 per cent thought that assisted-reproductive technologies would enable them to have a baby "deep into their 40s". The truth? "After age 40, only 3 to 5 per cent of those who use the new assisted reproductive technologies actually succeed in having a child." Hewlett says that the fertility business needs regulating in the US, but the fact that declining fertility is big business in the States - an egg donor can command opening bids on the internet of $150,000 for her wares - does not encourage fertility clinics or "egg brokers" to highlight the odds of success.
On the work-life front, Hewlett offers practical solutions to the problems she has encountered. Fully understanding that big business is likely to change policy only if it hits the balance sheet, she points out that when Lloyds TSB extended maternity leave, it increased the number of women returning to work and saved some £1.4 million a year in turnover costs. Job share, flexitime and at-home work options are also offered as solutions.
All this is firmly rooted in US big business - all very Dynasty . But Hewlett does not pretend otherwise. It is the world she inhabits, and she manages to mix in a healthy dollop of respect for stay-at-home mums and sheer joy at getting back from an international conference in time to put her three-year-old to bed. I would quibble only with the idea that young women should plan their lives so deliberately the Hewlett way - figuring in meeting potential husbands, having a first child and so on. This smacks too much of American self-help.
To return to Bridget Jones, she gets a mention in Baby Hunger . In fact, Tooley's and Hewlett's take on the often-tipsy 30-something Bridget defines their difference in attitude. For Tooley, Bridget is desperate for husband and kids, a brainwashed misery guts crying into her Chardonnay, representative of everything that is wrong with modern womanhood. For Hewlett, and I suspect for most real-life Ms Joneses, she is "self-mocking and seriously funny".
Katrina Wishart is on the staff of The THES .
The Miseducation of Women
Author - James Tooley
ISBN - 0 8264 5094 6
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £16.99
Pages - 258