Overproduction of Female Elites

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Mary Harrington:

"“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.”



From an interview of Mary Harrington by N.S. Lyons:

  • N.S. L: I was excited to see your essay in the latest issue of The Critic arguing, rather boldly, that much of the cultural (and political?) upheaval we are seeing today can be explained as the result of the overproduction of female elites (around 60% of US college students are female, with an even higher ratio in elite institutions). The political scientist Peter Turchin and others have argued that too many elites competing with each other to retain their class status leads to societal instability and even state collapse, but what does the (largely unprecedented) female character of the new Western elite have to do with it, in particular, in your view?

MH: In that essay I argued that the particular character of our emerging intra-elite conflict is historically unprecedented, because it’s heavily female. America has been producing more female than male graduates since the 1970s, and the same has been true in Britain since the 1990s. The imbalance might be relatively slight (though it's grown less so: 60/40 female to male at some elite US colleges now) but over the decades it compounds. The consequence has been, as numerous articles are now pointing out, an increasingly female-skewed ruling class.

I put this together with Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction, and Joyce Benenson’s research on female-typical aggression, to suggest that much of what looks like ideological conflict within institutions can plausibly be read as a conflict for increasingly scarce resources conducted in the female key. Whereas men tend to be more direct in their aggression, women typically compete indirectly via tactics such as hidden hierarchies, mob hostility, or conflict disguised as moral condemnation or concern for the group. Seen through that filter, it’s much easier to explain why – for example – one person is forced to resign for “historic tweets” while another weathers the storm: if you assume that in each case it's mostly about office politics, it all makes a great deal more sense.

I tried to make it clear that the jury’s out for me as to whether this is better or worse than the more violent sequelae Turchin describes in historic cases of elite overproduction. Either way, given that the structural conditions remain in place – women are more overrepresented than ever among college graduates since the pandemic – we can anticipate seeing it escalate over coming years and decades."


Potential Organizational Consequences

Mary Harrington:

"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."



Mary Harrington:

"“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?


“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.”