254. Following (III)
I once worked on an engineering magazine, as with many journalistic jobs the staff were mostly female. One girl in particular, unlike everyone else employed there, knew a lot about engineering. This girl had been trained as an engineer, and she had been trained at an Oxbridge university. I have no idea if the rankings for universities are true, but to have studied engineering at an Oxbridge university must mean to have studied at one of the ten best departments in the world. We can infer that she was among the country’s best students in her cohort, actually in the world in all likelihood; probably someone for whom the worn corporate cliché “world class” was true.
She had studied at the most elite level in a highly intellectual discipline: every middle-class parent wants their child to be a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer—preferably the latter two. Law, medicine, and engineering combine intellectual rigour with social prestige and money; and people who study in these subjects often go on to lead societies—both Thatcher and Arafat, to pick two very different world leaders, were engineers.
And yet, here she was—about my age—in a job that had very modest renumeration and less prestige than being an engineer. For someone—a man, in fact—at her age an engineer’s salary would be at least £60,000-£85,000, not £23,000. It is true that journalism carries a large amount of social prestige and, further, gives access to other people with high social prestige. This is why many people do it: the occupation lets them influence the masses and access important people. Humans often take social prestige and access to prestigious people over money; and this is why a plumber, however rich, will never have the cachet a journalist enjoys.
Yet, I doubt a male engineer would tread her path; engineering carries enough social prestige on its own—plus way more money. The step down would not be logical, but for a woman it was logical: she hated being an engineer after she graduated; and she hated it because she was a girl—girls are very sociable, quasi-autistic male engineers are not. So she moved to a role that was sociable: journalists talk to people all day. She could also use her job—as the other women did—to canvass potential high-status husbands through interviews and the networking events that are integral to corporate life. For society, the price for this girl to be an engineer was large: hours and hours of tuition at school and university; and then she took a place at university that could have gone to a man who fully utilised those skills—along the way she was so stressed she took anti-anxiety medications, since girls are neurotic perfectionists; although most engineers, when they push a motorway through a mountain, are not neurotic.
The return from her advanced education was squandered. She did a job that barely used the her education; her colleagues being humanities graduates from average universities who would rewrite press releases without a clue as to what the release really meant. What the girl wanted was a baby, but after advanced training, anxiety meds, and career changes she was in her mid-thirties and running out of time. In the old days, she would not have gone to university and would have had kids, passed on her high-quality genes, and perhaps become a very capable primary school teacher in her spare time.
Normal career girl: I knew a female lawyer—female lawyers are among the most miserable specimens on the planet—and again she was the product of an elite university, Australian this time, and again completely dropped out from law and in the process of drinking herself to death; her window for a child had passed. At one point I mentioned that my mother was divorced, “Oh, is she a strong independent woman, then?” she said with tart contempt—and quite deserved, because nobody believes this bullshit; not even its supposed beneficiaries.