By on August 7, 2013

A small group of elite females now compete with men on equal terms, argues Alison Wolf, author of The XX Factor. Reviewer Henrietta Royle is not so sure.

I suppose I am, like the women reading this magazine, the subject of this book. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was creating a new society, rather than operating within the existing one.

The only working women I encountered or was aware of when I was growing up were teachers, shop assistants and Mrs Thatcher. None of my friends’ mothers worked and I was unaware of any women who had been to university.

It was Mrs Thatcher who made me realise that there were other options. Cambridge and a career, initially in the City, followed.

The thesis of this book is that before the education of women and the opening up of the job market, all women’s lives were essentially the same, rich or poor: focused around husband and children. The overwhelming majority of women did not work after marriage, and only women from poorer families worked before marriage.

Alison Wolf contends that a split has opened up between a small elite group of women and the rest. For the latter, while work does feature, the focus remains on the family, with a preference for part-time work and a very different life profile from that of their male peers.

As to the elite, their lives are identical to those of men. They get educated in the same way, go to the same universities in similar numbers and are hired into the same jobs with the same ambitions. They are able to afford good-quality childcare and therefore continue to work in demanding jobs in the same way as their husbands and brothers.

But I think the jury is still out on her assertion that elite women are now entirely equal, as what we see is that they are not getting to the top in equal proportion to men. Wolf states this is simply a matter of time and moves on to other topics. I don’t agree, and in the meantime we are wasting talent.

In the 30% Club, McKinsey has recently done research showing that despite women making up about half of new staff, only 11% of UK executive committee members are women.

Progress seems to fall off a cliff once women get to senior associate/manager level, where they are still 40% to 50% of the staff. The assertion was that women pour out of the door to have children at this point.

But the evidence is that they don’t leave in significantly greater numbers than men and when they do it is for similar reasons – career opportunity.

What is clearly happening is that they suddenly stop getting promoted at the same pace as men in mid-career and this difference accelerates with seniority. So it is not about fixing the women but taking a look at processes and culture in a way that will retain and promote talent.

I am not sure I agree with the author on the issue of children, either. She suggests elite women pay for childcare and get on with their careers.

But the women I know are constantly torn. They know society still sees childcare as something that is for them to do or pay for. The debate about giving up work is often about how much a woman earns compared to the cost of childcare.

It is still not seen as a joint cost and as an investment in future earnings, in the way that paying to do an MBA would be.

This book is engagingly written and has lots of interesting data and information about attitudes to sex (educated women and men start later, but have more), having children (only the poor and the rich have lots), getting married (increasingly an ‘elite’ practice), and who one marries (an equal – bright successful people marry each other).

But I feel that the title overplays the text. Wolf describes what has happened to women’s lives generally. I am not sure she really tries to make the case that working women have changed society. Rather, she describes how society changed after the war, thus enabling women to be educated and get good jobs, which then had a feedback loop into further societal changes.

I would argue society changed as a result of the equality and fairness agenda, and a belated recognition that we were wasting talent. I think the book is fascinating and there is plenty of food for thought within it.

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