why so little fiction on women at work?

I’ve been looking for examples from fiction to illustrate the  5 Paula Principle factors: discrimination; child/eldercare; psychology/self-confidence; vertical networks; and choice.  I’ve sought help from friends who are much better read than I am, and here’s the curious thing:  it is quite easy to find examples from classics from C19 or earlier – but not from contemporary novels.

An obvious example: in Middlemarch Dorothea’s intellectual ability is put humiliatingly at Casaubon’s service – she acts as his note-taker and amanuensis but does not dare to aspire to anything greater (though eventually the frustration bursts out, in a heart-rending scene).   Helpful friends pointed to various examples from Dickens, Austen etc.  I’ve found good illustrations from 1930s literature, for example Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages or Winifred Holtby’s South Riding.  I’m enjoying Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, on childcare;  and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs tells a haunting story of a woman who follows her mother’s injunction to be an independent working woman but finds herself compromised by eldercare and is tormented by her childlessness. But it’s been a struggle to turn up anything much from more recent fiction.

At first I did some thoroughly unscientific trawling through bookshop shelves, especially though not exclusively of women authors.  The vast majority of them write about relationships, personal and emotional development – but not, it seems, about life at work.

So I’ve just turned to systematic reviews of literature, such as Jenny Hartley’s Women Like Us, which covers writing that deals with women working in WW2.  Fascinating, but not quite on the PP wavelength.   For a general overview, I went hopefully to Janet Todd’s comprehensive compendium of British Women Writers.  The  700-page volume covers a huge range of writing, and (unlike most of the similar reference works I looked at) it has a very full index.  The entry on ‘Women and work’ has just 6 entries;  and of these 5 are from the C19 or earlier!

Please prove me wrong (ie examples  welcome!); or explain why women’s working lives get such short shrift.



  1. I think there are quite a lot of examples in ‘airport’ books of women doing jobs in which they are underestimated and then coming out triumphant. Not necessarily realistic but….For example there is Lowe and Ince’s Taking Over, in which the wives of 4 executives come together to set up a company which thrives just as their husbands’ are failing. But they are patronised en route. I think also in Louise Bagshawe’s books (Louise Mensch as she now is) there are various heroines who suffer in their work before coming out on top. This may not be quite the literature you had in mind, but I suspect in AS Byatt’s Possession the female academic gets quite a lot of grief too.

    1. TomSchuller

      Thanks Athene. I’m open to all genres/types, though it helps if they are good of their kind. I have looked at Byatt’s books (and her sister’s), but can’t find exactly what I’m looking for. My former colleagues at NIACE have been twittering on about this, and are looking….

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