Sunday, 21 April 2013

Role Models

I recently read a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which stated that young women in the US were now significantly outperforming young men in education. For example, by 25-years-old, 30% of women have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 22% for men. 

Bloomberg Businessweek have an interesting (and short) article in which DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University, suggests a few reasons to explain this performance gap. One of his points suggests that, “unlike young women, many young men try to emulate their fathers or grandfathers, who succeeded in blue-collar jobs without college educations.” Since these jobs don’t exist anymore, this ‘echo of an older generation’ could potentially prove to be a hindrance to men’s eventual success (since college graduates still have better employment, health, and marriage prospects).

In the ‘90s, numerous sociologists started writing about modernity and the ‘modern’ society, characterised largely by the breakdown of traditional structures such as religion, class, the nuclear family and gender roles. In Beck’s Risk Society, he talks about a “social transformation within modernity” which has resulted in people being “set free from the social forms of industrial society.” This detraditionalisation brought about a surge of individualism. Rather than following the path expected of them based on their membership of a particular class, religious group or gender, individuals were now expected to forge their own, unique path.

While this freedom from traditional life-paths was in many ways liberating, it was also disorienting. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, in their book Individualisation, explain how routines and traditional institutions “have an unburdening function which renders individuality and decision-making possible.” By removing the structures of tradition and routine, individuals are left with a bewildering number of options; choice becomes stressful and encumbering rather than freeing.

This burden is, according to these sociologists, exacerbated for women. Young men can look to their fathers and grandfathers as role models for how to forge a life-path through education and career. However for young women, whose mothers and grandmothers were restricted to the house or low-level professions, they are faced with a bewildering world of choice with few individuals to offer a road map. Young women have to make their own projects and work out their own ideas about the future, with little support from any role model.

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim were writing in the ‘90s so it’s interesting to read this Bloomberg article and consider that perhaps the lack of role models has in fact been more beneficial for women than sociologists assumed 20 years ago. Lacking in professional role models, young women have turned to education in an attempt to improve their chances in a baffling world of choice. It will be interesting to see whether women’s increasing success in education translates to increasing success in the workplace.


Beck U (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage

Beck U and Beck-Gernsheim E (2002) Individualization, London: Sage

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