SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 172 October 2013

The class ceiling

The XX Factor: How working women are creating a new society

By Alison Wolf

Published by Profile Books, 2013, £15.99

Available from Socialist Books

Reviewed by Sarah Wrack

In the introduction to The XX Factor, Alison Wolf says: "Until now, all women’s lives, whether rich or poor, have been dominated by the same experiences and pressures. Today, elite and highly educated women have become a class apart. However, these professionals, business women and holders of advanced degrees, the top 15 or 20 per cent of a developed country’s female workforce, have not moved further apart from men than in the past. On the contrary, they are now more like the men of the family than ever before in history. It is from other women that they have drawn away".

The book acts as a useful reference of facts and figures about modern women’s lives – how they spend their time, the jobs they have, relationship and childbearing patterns, and so on. Wolf successfully highlights growing divisions between poorer and richer (or, as she calls them, ‘the educated elite’) women. She fails, however, to take note of the fact that there is a growing gap between the top and bottom across society, not just for women.

But it is correct to point out that these divisions have emerged more rapidly for women, and in a way that affects more areas of their lives. In the past the most important thing for the vast majority of women was family life. Wolf argues that for elite women this is no longer the case. She shows that in the top paying careers – business, law, finance, etc – there is almost no gender segregation in jobs, whereas in the lowest paying most women are still in traditional ‘women’s jobs’.

In fact Wolf shows an interesting correlation between an increase in women managing to reach ‘the top’ and an increase in gender-segregated work for those at the bottom. Sweden for example, which has some of the most ‘women-friendly’ policies, has one of the highest rates of gender segregation in the workplace. When the elite go out to work, Wolf argues, other women are employed to look after their children, clean their houses, and cook for them. In 1951, 5% of the economically active population in Britain were ‘domestics’. This fell to fewer than 0.5% in 1981. But Wolf suggests the lifestyles of elite women may be turning this trend around – figures now suggest 4% of employed females work in private homes. Between 1992 and 2004 spending on eating out doubled.

It is widely known that there has been a big increase over recent years in the number of part-time jobs, and that most are taken by women, particularly for reasons of childcare. Here again there are big differences

between the classes. Wolf’s elite are much more likely to be working full time and to return to work after having children. Of mothers of UK children born in 2000 over half of the least qualified were not employed at all in the first three years of their child’s life. Over two thirds with degrees were back at work within nine months.

People in general are having fewer children, having them later, and more are having no children at all. But this is even truer for the educated elite than the general trend. In the US graduates are twice as likely as high school drop-outs to be childless. Wolf argues that having a child is likely to have a bigger effect on their careers and income than for those who never felt a decent career or high income was a possibility.

In some ways the book is very economistic – failing to take account of divisions and oppressions that can’t be measured by education or finances. Even the educated elite, who have broken through the glass ceiling and have the same high powered careers as men, experience sexism. In fact the culture of sexual harassment and discrimination in London’s financial centre, the City of London, is surely one of the worst. And rich, educated women can still suffer domestic violence and are still affected by attacks on abortion rights – albeit more able to find solutions to these things.

While Wolf’s research shows the benefits open to women from a more well-off background, she hints at the fact that this can also create problems for these women. All women are subject to pressures on the basis of being women; there are no completely free choices under capitalism. Wolf shows that it is not the case that more-educated women do not want children as often as less-educated ones, but actually that they often feel unable to do so because of the effect it would have on their careers. So a high powered career can limit women’s freedom in other areas of life.

At other points Wolf, on the contrary, fails to take enough account of economic factors. For example, when discussing the sex industry, she gives credence to the idea that the main reason why more-educated women do not tend to work in the sex industry may be because it would harm their prospects of marrying a man of equal educational status to themselves. While the social stigma attached to the sex industry is clearly a factor for many, the main reason that more working-class women take up this type of work is obviously economic.

On each issue she has researched, discusses and gives figures for, Wolf concludes by saying that patterns emerge because of individual women weighing up their options and deciding what is the best for them. She fails to really analyse why patterns emerge and why there are such differences in the lives of different strata of women. This failure is summed up by her comment after outlining one statistical trend: "The data don’t offer any explanation, and I don’t have one to offer either".

What is missing from The XX Factor is a recognition that it is class, not simply education, that provides a cause to the inequality women face. Wolf overestimates the similarities between women’s lives in the past – contrary to her suggestion that in the past all women stopped work to raise children, it is estimated that in the mid-Victorian era 30-40% of working-class women significantly contributed to household income. Life has been experienced very differently by different women, and men for that matter, since the dawn of class society.

Wolf’s book is a good explanation of the ways in which this has changed, that social attitudes have moved on from thinking that women’s only role is to reproduce. It is also useful in showing that middle-class women have been able to take more advantage of this than their working-class contemporaries. A further weakness though, is that Wolf looks at these differences from the perspective of ‘the educated elite’ (she counts herself in this category) and therefore does not provide much explanation of the experiences that face the majority of women. The very fact that the descriptions in the book would seem alien to most women is proof that, for the vast majority, the glass ceiling is still very much intact.

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