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.