Are You an Alpha Woman?

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is representative of a ...

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is representative of a new type of Alpha Woman. Photo: The Washington Post

“The Colonel's Lady and Judy O'Grady are sisters under their skin.” So wrote the poet Rudyard Kipling in 1892, asserting that whatever their class or creed, women were united by a common experience dictated by their sex: our futures and survival hingeing on who and how we married, whether we bore children … and whether those children liked us enough to support us in our old age.

Kipling's words had been true for centuries, but they are no longer true today. The world we live in has been transformed – by successive waves of feminism, by the pill, by the expansion of higher education, and by a post-industrial economy in which women not only have the means to support ourselves, but in most cases are required to for our survival, whether we are partnered or not. Gender is still a factor in how each of us experiences the world, but biology is no longer literally destiny.

It is this brave new world that forms the subject of The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society, a new book by London-based economist Alison Wolf. The book is a forensic analysis of women, work and class, drawing upon a mix of interviews and hard, quantitative data to dissect the radical impact of the influx of highly educated, professional women into the workforce over the past 30 years, across locations as diverse as New York City, Stockholm, and Dhaka in Bangladesh. “We no longer believe that someone should be told they can't do things because of their gender,” Wolf says.

But the revolution, she argues, has been distributed unevenly. Where once women were bonded by a common set of experiences, whether they were Colonel's Ladies or Judy O'Gradys, today the paths we tread are more sharply divided than ever before – not because of the choices we make, but the opportunities available to us.


At one end of the spectrum are what Wolf calls the “Alpha females”: the approximately 20 per cent of women who are highly educated, career driven, and usually well compensated for their work. These are the kind of women American journalist Liza Mundy is talking about when she talks about women becoming “the richer sex”, or who form Sheryl Sandberg-style Lean In Circles in their spare evenings.

For these women, the world is markedly different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. They marry later, have children later, and in most cases return to full-time work after they become parents. They work long hours in competitive industries where men and women work alongside one another. In almost every measure, their lives look increasingly like those of their male counterparts.

The other 80 per cent of women are working too, but their working lives look very different. They are more likely to be employed part-time, and their jobs are likely to be single-sex or majority female. They have children earlier – in the United States, four in five high-school dropouts are mothers by the age of 25, while for women with bachelor's degrees, the peak child-bearing years don't begin until 30 – and spend longer out of the workforce when they do have children.

For all the talk about “retro wives,” and “choosing your choice”, for the most part the choices these two groups of women make are systemic and political; determined by the options available to them.

Wealthier people of both sexes delay or forgo parenthood not because they don't want or like children (most do), but because the other choices on the table are equally or more tantalising – in the short term, especially. They continue working after they become parents because slowing down or taking a break would diminish their future options, or because the industries they work in don't offer part-time work at a high level. More than education or income, the Alphas are defined by their ability to choose work that defines and fulfils them. “They work in jobs that you do because you want to do them and that's who you are, as opposed to jobs you do to bring home money,” says Wolf.

The other 80 per cent of women experience a different set of challenges. They are less likely to earn enough money to pay for childcare, or to benefit from pay hikes and promotions in the future that would offset present losses. At the same time, employment is often an economic necessity: if most families have two incomes, it becomes difficult to live on one.

Wolf's arguments raise a bigger question, as well. If the experience of being a woman is increasingly fractured along class lines, why are most of our conversations about feminism targeted at the 20 per cent of women who are university-educated professionals?

The problem here is not that women are leading different lives, or that non-“Alpha” women should be striving to lead the same lives as their professional sisters (a common Alpha error). It is that when it comes to women's issues, the stories we hear most often are almost always those of the Alpha. She is the woman we are told to aspire to be, whether in the form of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Senator Penny Wong, or a suite of fictional characters played by Sarah Jessica Parker. And she is the woman whose trials we most often wring our hands over. “Highly educated feminists are often obsessed with the glass ceiling and high court judges,” says Wolf.

These are worthy causes, and important stories to share: they resonate deeply with many women's lives. But when they are the only version of gender politics we are given, we miss a vital piece of the puzzle. Instead of entreating women to identify as feminists because they “have a vagina” and “want to be in charge of it”, we would do better to start telling stories that encompass the experiences of a broader range of women – that address the concerns of the 80 per cent as well as the 20 per cent. Perhaps then, we will be “sisters” once more.

48 comments so far

  • The greatest creation is the miracle of a NEW human being. The greatest JOB is the development of the creation. Does a CAREER pale by comparison?

    Coffs harbour
    Date and time
    June 17, 2013, 9:13AM
    • Not in the slightest. Take a look at some of the people popping out children, miracle or otherwise. They certainly couldn't have had my career, in which I supported many families and children in need. Intelligent women make decisions that are not based on this 'greatest job' myth.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 3:18PM
    • I'm curious, why are they mutually exclusive ? And only for women? I'm yet to hear anyone tell a man "you can't have it all", meaning a career & children. I have both, and an equal marriage as a result. That means he also (shock horror) sees the housework & kids as his equal responsibility, not as "helping" me. Working women (and men) still do the housework & cooking etc., too, they just have less time in which to do it.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 3:27PM
    • As an educated, professional self-made woman; huh?

      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 3:48PM
    • Carmine
      Men don't need to be told that we "can't have it all". We've understood for a very long time that life requires a lot of sacrifices. We know that we are still required to be the breadwinners and spend the vast majority of our lives in paid work. This is why we'll select women that are complementary to this and can stay at home to look after the kids or be able to leave work early to pick them up from daycare/school. It's not an option men have in the working world where we leave the house at 7:30ish only to return 12+ hours later because the work commitments and commute require us to do so.

      Women should do the same. If you want the high-flying career then select a man who doesn't. Select a amn that's willing to stay home and/or only work part-time in a low-paying job. No point selecting another man with an equally high-flying career as he'll be extremely reluctant to give that up.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 4:45PM
    • Yes, the greatest creation is life. The greatest job varies by personal opinion. There is no doubt that parenting is a valuable contribution to the community. As is being a nurse or a council worker.

      Parenting during work hours is work. I'd like to see Parenting Payments treated as the community work that it is. Not a workplace entitlement from previous employment. Not welfare. But an actual public service. Because that is what parenting is.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 5:31PM
    • Valuable work certainly, and I hope it brings happiness to those who follow that path, and I definitely believe it needs to be better recognised as the work it is. But it is by no means the only path.

      Perhaps you should stop for a minute and consider what a comment such as yours @Ferrari25 says about the value of the lives and efforts of childless people, women and men both. What right do you have to make those judgments about others?

      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 7:25PM
  • Alphamales or females generally is a dedceit.They are just like everyone else,but get better opportunities and more assistance and better publoicity because of family conmnections or wealth more than anything else.And that starts with their schooling--the discrimination from the system to select those who have been reared with the"correct" value system from birth.

    Date and time
    June 17, 2013, 10:24AM
    • I would disagree. By the definitions given here, I fit the model of the alpha female, but come from a very working class migrant family, went to a public school and had to start fulltime work on leaving school to contribute to the family income. But I wanted more so I worked hard, working 2 to 3 jobs for a decade or more, paid for my own higher education and continued to stretch and challenge myself at work. I am now self-employed and love my work. There are many women like me who got to where they are through hard work and determination, without any help from well-connected or well-heeled parents.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 1:20PM
  • Hi Ferrari25 - I'm sorry but I respectfully disagree with your comment. It is demeaning to those who are unable or unwilling to have children. Regardless of whether they are male or female.

    People, individuals, seek fulfillment in a variety of different ways and to suggest that one is more important than another is only your perspective, and quite frankly, offensive to others who choose to live their life in a different way.

    I do agree that having and raising children is indeed incredible (I have no children) but I get incredible joy from watching my two nieces grow up. The fact that I am gay and this government does not recognise my relationship by allowing me to marry or to have or adopt children is not my fault. Therefore I seek fulfillment in other ways, through my career, through my family etc.

    Date and time
    June 17, 2013, 10:25AM

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