Because, as a working mom, I feel it’s important to constantly find new reasons to feel guilty, I recently read Alison Wolf’s new book, The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World.
Wolf’s thesis, in case you’ve somehow – lucky you! – managed to miss all the media coverage, is that today’s “elite and highly educated women have become a class apart … more like the men of the family than ever before in history” But, Wolf explains in detail, they are less like other women – the vast majority of women around the world – than ever before. The things that have always been the basis of common experiences among women – pregnancy, child-rearing, household responsibilities – are no longer shared in the same way by the uppermost echelon of high-powered working women. And, Wolf argues, the elite’s gains are very much their poorer sisters’ losses.
At first blush, the logic seems utterly straightforward. Generally speaking, super-successful working women find the time, energy and focus for their careers either by avoiding the traditional roles of wifedom and motherhood altogether or, probably more commonly, by outsourcing them. And, through this outsourcing, they are driving the vast expansion of a global servant class economy, populated by house cleaners, nannies, nursing assistants and other chronically underpaid workers.
Of all the stuff I feel bad about on a daily basis – today’s list includes rushing my five year old through his reading practice, buying my four year old’s cooperation with animal crackers, and sending my seven year old to school wearing a little brother’s mittens because I couldn’t find his – it had never even occurred to me that the nation’s growing income inequality was, like the lack of extra toilet paper in our bathroom cabinets, also largely my fault. I’ll be honest: I was pretty comfortable pinning that one on Wall Street. Or Reagan.
Leaving aside for a moment, the stunningly obvious fact that men weren’t exactly running some kind of socialist paradise when they exclusively occupied the upper echelons of professional success – and are we really going to argue about who’s got it worse: the unpaid housewife with no property rights or the low-wage worker who has emerged, a generation later, to replace her? – Wolf’s argument misses the boat on an even more fundamental level. Because the women she’s writing about, the ones supposedly driving a new world order, in which gender differences hardly exist for the upper classes but are intractably solidified for the poor and working classes, these women … well, I’m not sure they exist.
Wolf, a British academic, fills her book with an impressive breadth and depth of research. But on the subject of who these all-important super-elite women actually are, she is strangely vague, saying, “In writing this book, I talked to a whole range of successful young women—in business and finance, academia and government, publishing, museum work and journalism. I didn’t set out to find ones with particular ‘mainstream’ characteristics: these were people I knew, friends of family, friends of friends. None of them was having a child before the age of thirty; and only one was contemplating taking a full career break.”
Maybe we just run in different circles, but, in my experience, I have yet to encounter a single successful young woman who hasn’t contemplated a career break to accommodate motherhood. Not one.
Wolf insists that such a dilemma is a non-issue, because successful men want to marry, and ultimately have children with, successful women. As she puts it, “Just as women want ‘top’ fathers for their children, so men want ‘top’ mothers for theirs.” So these men, she posits, expect that their wives will continue their fast-track careers throughout pregnancy and child rearing.
It’s this assumption that is fundamentally at odds with the reality of America’s “elite” women. Because, although it is clearly true that “top” men and “top” women do tend to marry each other, after meeting at business school or law school, it is also true that those highly credentialed women, so many of whom start out on roughly the same (or a parallel) career track as their husbands, overwhelmingly end up downshifting their professional expectations once they start having children.
Wolf comes close to admitting this only once in the book, writing, “At one of the big investment banks, a vice president told me that half of the women who come back from maternity leave are gone again within a year.”
She brushes this off as an exception.
But this is where she has things exactly wrong. Because a Harvard MBA dropping out of banking to focus on her family is just not in the same position as a Harvard MBA who continues his banking career as his children grow up. What’s striking about the lives of these “elite” women is that, despite equaling (and even generally exceeding) their male peers’ academic accomplishments, they are still not nearly equally represented in board rooms and executive offices. Gender inequities persist among the elite and there is some evidence that they are, in fact, growing.
Wolf points to widening (and seemingly increasingly entrenched) social class inequality as the product of a class of elite men and women who are forming “fortress families,” their children’s future places in the elite secured by the very fact of their birth to two high-achieving parents. She describes the phenomenon, writing that, “Today, it is graduate couples, men and women, who dedicate the most time to their children, and who devote huge amounts of money, as well as time and worry, to their education. They do so because they are fully aware of the role that formal education plays in the modern labor market. They believe that getting the “best” and the most prestigious education possible will help all their children, female and male, succeed in an unforgiving world. And, as we have seen, they are right.”
She’s not wrong about these families, except in one critical respect: the forces driving them are not, as she would have it “couples, men and women” dedicating their time to the shared project of parenthood. Instead, these families are managed by an army of highly educated, highly accomplished women who find themselves devoting their considerable intelligence, focus, ambition and organizational skill to one project above all others: the raising of their children.
If one were inclined toward conspiracy theories, one could almost argue that just at the moment when women had access to all the trappings of real economic and political power, powerful cultural forces created a set of expectations for them as mothers – from exclusive breastfeeding to early childhood “enrichment” straight on through pre-college resume building and sports performance coaching – that made it virtually impossible to do both at once.
Could somebody research that one? Because that’s the book I’d like to read.
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