The XX Factor

Alison Wolf’s new book, The XX  Factor, is jam-packed with juicy items, enough to keep book groups and academic seminars in discussion mode for many hours.

The sub-title, ‘how working women are creating a new society’, is a little misleading.  Wolf focuses above all on women with top-end education.   They are an elite, though when they are all put together there are a lot of them.   She estimates these to be 15-20% of the population in most developed countries, amounting to some 70 million worldwide. They are educated at  universities with high reputations, and they have high career aspirations.  At the heart of the book is the argument that these women have a radically different experience from other women, who carry on doing the kinds of work women have done for decades, paid or unpaid .   The subtitle occludes this key distinction.

Wolf’s argument , in essence, is that the experience of these elite women represents a huge change from even a single generation ago; and that their work – pay and careers – is pretty much equal with men’s.    Subjectively as well as objectively they have very much less in common with other women(if indeed they have  anything at all in common) than was the case in the days when childbearing and childrearing dominated the great majority of women’s early adulthood. As a result, it makes less and less sense to  talk of women as a group.  Sisterhood is diminishingly likely.

The book is a bracing challenge to those who persistently focus on gender inequalities.  I agree with Wolf on the need to bear in mind the magnitude of change in the way opportunities work;  and that for young highly educated women there are now few barriers at entry into employment.  I also agree that inequalities between women have grown, and are now very considerable.  I am less convinced, though, that the younger generations are guaranteed equality on a continuing basis.  Wolf makes excellent use of longitudinal studies, and so she might agree that it will be really important to see where the current younger generations have got to as they move deeper into middle age.  My hunch, looking at the work of Jenny Neugarten and others, is that the earnings gap will have widened again by then.  Wolf reports on interviews with confident young women in many different countries, and seems confident herself that the equalisation will be maintained.  I’m not so sure – but then I wouldn’t claim to have gone through the evidence in the same detail.

The book is an empirical treasure trove, packed with statistics but nonetheless highly readable.  One stat which really surprised me is that there is equality between the proportions of highly educated men and women in their 40s who are childless – around 30% for those born in 1958.  So, Wolf says, there is symmetry in their household circumstances.  This goes against the analyses which say that motherhood penalises and fatherhood benefits earnings – but I’m not sure if these split out the highly educated.    A large part of the explanation lies in increasing homogamy:  because men increasingly want to marry women as highly educated as themselves (and these groups do on the whole marry, rather than cohabiting), and because these women are less keen to have children, then the price for men of their homogamy is increasing childlessness.  Probing that for men would make an interesting study, alongside the debates about women preferring career to children.  It would take us deep into the discussion of ‘choice’ – the fifth Paula Principle factor.



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