The women who can't have it all

Author Alison Wolf on how equality has left some women out, and why she disagrees with Anne-Marie Slaughter

Published October 6, 2013 8:30PM (EDT)

Alison Wolf       (Kings College, London)
Alison Wolf (Kings College, London)

One of the biggest criticisms of "Lean In" -- and indeed, of much rhetoric about women and work in the early 21st century -- has been that it ignores class differences between women. Enter Alison Wolf, who's written an entire book about these differences.

In "The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World," the King's College professor marshals economic and sociological data to show that the lives of women at the bottom of the economic ladder are drastically different from the lives of those at the top. From work to childcare to sex, class matters -- and in many situations, she argues, it now matters even more than gender. In a time when many are calling on feminism to better understand women's differences rather than assuming we're all the same, her arguments are especially relevant. Salon spoke with Wolf about the "outsourcing" of domestic work, why things have gotten better for professional women but not necessarily for everyone else, and why she disagrees with Anne-Marie Slaughter.

You argue that women from different economic classes have less in common today than they ever did. What do you think this means for feminism?

I think it means that feminism has to face up to the fact that few things in life are an unadulterated 100% triumph for everybody.  I don’t think for a moment it means that people should feel that feminism is was a mistake because clearly the fact that half of humanity can use its brains, develop itself and use its potential has to be good. But I think there was a tendency in the early days of feminism -- a kind of utopian approach to life, and this belief that if you could make it possible for powerful and ambitious women to go out into the world and do what they wanted to do all the other problems with society would also fall away. And I think the world that we have now shows it isn’t that simple.

What we have now in society is a group of men and a group of women, in my view, who -- even if we often feel stressed -- we have lives which to previous generations would have looked hugely desirable, and enviable. But we only have those lives because other people are doing a lot of things,which we don’t want to do and can afford to pay other people to do. Now, I certainly think that the world in which basically all women did jobs for nothing, that world is gone and goodbye to it, and a world well lost.

But if I were a woman in the 1950s, say, who was not ambitious, who was living with a breadwinner husband, who liked being at home and didn’t need to go out to work -- and who today lives in a world where there are a lot of couples with two good incomes who are buying the good houses, who are ambitious for their children – and where she does increasingly have to go out to work and where many of the jobs that everybody’s doing are quite routine, quite poorly paid, quite insecure, often at very unsociable hours. I think that if I were that woman, I would not be convinced that today’s society was hugely better for me.

In the book you talk a lot about the "outsourcing" of domestic work -- families hiring people to do cooking, cleaning and childcare. What are the consequences of this outsourcing both for high-income and lower-income women?

I think for the women at the top of the spectrum, and for the men that they're with – and I do want to emphasize that feminism has been very good to men at the top as well as to women at the top. The existence of lots of talented women means the whole economy is bigger. There are a lot of places in the Ivy Leagues, which are now taken by women that would have been taken by men.  But if you are a successful man, it’s very clear that these men like to marry and partner with women like themselves, just as successful women like to partner with successful men. So I think for people at the top, women as well as men, who lead lives which are centered on fulfilling careers, as well as often on family, this has been on balance overwhelmingly a plus.

I think that for a large number of women for whom a career is a great thing, who love to use their brains and their minds on a daily basis and who’ve been able to follow an educational route to success -- or those women and their families, for the men who they're with and for the children they are desperately but successfully nurturing to do well themselves, it has been good.

But one of the things which I was very struck by were the Scandinavian statistics. I was surprised by the degree to which the Scandinavian labor market is segregated by gender. Huge numbers of Scandinavian women work full time, doing jobs which are essentially about the outsourcing of what used to be home care or cooking by women.  And what I think is shocking about that is not just that it was a crystal-clear example of how you get two groups.  But also that actually women in Scandinavia seem to find full-time work quite stressful. So I think that this outsourcing has been tremendously beneficial to people at the top, and much less so for those further down.

But I also think it probably doesn’t need to be quite as nice for people at the top and quite as tough for people below as our society seems to have made it. We seem to have sort of two models going. We either have the highly socialized Scandinavian model, which everybody outside of Scandinavia seems to think is wonderful, but which basically means that everybody has to work full time, because you cannot manage without two full-time salaries and everybody seems to work full time and that seems to lead to a lot of stress. Or you have what’s happening with the rest of the world, which is that we’ve made it very easy to pay very low wages for the people who are doing these tasks. And that’s one of the things that sort of bothers me. We focus on the .01%, we focus on the bankers, the super-rich. But actually what has been happening is that the top group generally has pulled away.

I know when I say this to people they feel like "I'm always short of money, I'm always feeling stressed, I always feel like I don't have enough." But actually, we pay miserable wages to the people who look after our children in nurseries. We pay miserable wages to the people who take care of the elderly. We pay miserable wages to fast-food workers and people preparing the pizzas and ready meals so we don’t have to cook every evening. And I suppose I do feel that while I don’t have any simple answers about how we get to utopia, I do feel that we could be better about accepting that at the top we have really pretty good lives, and we could still have pretty good lives if we were taxed a bit more heavily.

Are there other things in addition to taxation that would bring these two groups closer together?

I’m not sure about that. Recently, the reality of the labor market is that there is a subset of jobs that are about using your brain, having a career that is central to your life, and there are also a large number jobs that are not about that. They are about doing routine things, and this is sort of the underbelly not just of feminism but the underbelly of the professional lifestyle. The reality is that a lot of the jobs out there on which we depend are actually boring, and they are at really unsociable hours, and they are often by their nature not very secure. And it's not that this hasn’t been true in the past. We’ve always had serious inequality, but the fact that now women have become less oppressed, less forced to all do the kind of boring things, has simply thrown it into relief.

I know it’s a slightly downbeat message. It’s not something that makes you go away with a spring in your step. On the other hand I do think that this has happened because once women were allowed to use their brains, they have done well, they have done fantastically well. Half the jobs that are classified as professional or managerial are now held by women. They may not hold the very very top, but they have done it.

Some people might read your book and say that if the entry of women into professional jobs has caused women to outsource less fulfilling tasks,  the solution is women should stop doing professional jobs. What would your response be to that?

My answer is, “That’s outrageous!” Why isn’t the answer to this for men to stop doing their professional jobs? That’s not a solution. It’s not like there was perfect equality before, it’s just that the people who weren't at the top included all women. To send women back is not to create equality. This is not something that would be solved by sending women back. What this is saying is that if you solve one serious injustice in society, you have to accept that it doesn’t solve all inequalities, and second it may throw others into greater relief.

We still have a wage gap in the U.S., and men still outnumber women in Congress. Do you feel like we have really reached professional parity? Are we doing better than we think we are?

I think we are doing better than we think we are, actually. I think we’ve sort of lost sight of how recent all this change has been. And one of the things that really hit me when I wrote the book was – a number of younger friends of mine said, “Hey, this is the story of my generation. It’s slightly spooky to read about this and realize the choices I’ve made were not just me; other people weren’t facing the same things.”

One of the things that I was very struck by in Europe just now was during this German election in which Angela Merkel won, the fact that she was a woman actually was genuinely not part of the discussion. The discussion was all about different policies, the CDU [Christian Democratic Union] government vs. the challengers. But the fact that the CDU, in a country that used to be so traditional and so conservative, the fact that it was led by a woman and had been for ages, and she was absolutely unchallenged in her leadership -- it was sort of a non-issue. That’s one of the things we are doing better than we think.

There is the other issue, which is the degree to which women still find it normal that if there’s a discussion, they are the ones who are more likely to say, "I'll go part-time a bit. I'll pull back a bit." My hunch is that it will never be entirely 50/50, which parent of a newborn child gives it more attention, and I suppose I’m over-generalizing from the experiences of places that have tried very hard to make it completely 50/50, and saw resistance. But I also think that the more that we have small families, the more that we work longer and longer -- and that’s just beginning, too -- and also the fact that there are large numbers of women who don’t have children, just as there’s a large number of professional men who don’t have children -- I think that at the very top the numbers will converge. I suspect they won’t ever be 50/50 equally in all occupations, but I think they’ll be closer than they are now.

At the end of the book you note that people talk a lot about women being unhappier now than they used to be. And you say that’s not always true. I wonder if you could expand on that a little. 

There was study done by a couple of well-known American academics that got a lot of coverage here, and a lot of journalists latched onto in the U.K., and there were all these headlines about, you know, “Women are unhappy!” and “Women are finding a more liberated life more difficult,” and it was always kind of “women" as opposed to "some women." And then I looked at the numbers, and I discovered first of all it was actually only a very small change. And it only seemed to be a U.S. phenomenon, not an international one. And I can’t explain that actually. I really can’t. That’s why I’d have to throw it over to you.

I do think again it comes back to this terrible tendency we have to continue to look at the world as though the major defining difference is between men over there and women over there. And I think that for a lot of history, being a woman was not just the defining thing, it was the absolute defining thing. And now to talk about "women" is more often misleading than not. We talk about them as if they’re in the same group.

In your chapter on sex you mention the ways people's sex lives differ based on class. And in the U.S., women’s access to various types of sexual healthcare varies a lot by class. Is that something you found elsewhere?

I think that’s less of an issue in most European countries. In Europe, with the tight national governments and the welfare state, that is much less of a problem.

One of the things that in Europe we've discovered with the welfare state is that the people who get the most out of it are the most educated, the most privileged. They know how to work it. It is good for everybody, but it doesn’t make everyone equal. Nothing ever does somehow.

One of the things that really intrigued, and again sort of depressed me: you’ve got this big, big difference in age when you have your first sexual experience, and how much time you dedicated to [school]work, as opposed to sex when you’re a teen. But then in the U.K. -- I couldn’t find any comparable data in the U.S. -- once somebody enters their late 20s or early 30s, the educated men and women seem to be enjoying sex more than people who have been having it since they were 14. I wonder if that is partly the same thing -- that when things go wrong or when there are problems and issues, they are less well able to deal with them. But that point is only speculation.

You mention that women at the top have less free time than they used to, that they’re working more. And you also say you don’t think it’s realistic that workplaces are going to remake themselves to the way Ann-Marie Slaughter thinks they should, with more flexibility for parents, more job-sharing, more part-time opportunities. Can you expand on both those points a little?

I think two things were interesting. First that it was indeed that professional women had less time, but it was also interesting that everybody below the top 15% really did have more leisure time, so I guess you can say that’s one good thing that’s been happening. You know back in the 19th century the poorer you were the more working hours you put in, and now it seems like people who are less well paid at least have a bit more leisure.

And I think the answer to that is in a way, it’s two things. First, although professional women and professional men, they both work hard, although they’ve outsourced a lot, at the end of the day there are some things you can’t outsource. And so if one of you is not at home it is going to be something you have to deal with when you get back and you can’t just pay someone to do it. The other reason comes back to the thing that sort of is the reason I think that inequality is going to go on being an issue and social mobility is going to continue to be an issue. What is really dramatically increasing is time spent with children -- not sort of just having children run around the house, but actually doing things with them -- and I was really struck by that. Because there’s this debate: Do we parent intensively or is it that there are these professional parents who come home and barely see their kids. And it seems the answer is very clear: Even though we work very hard, we in fact come home and parent crazily intensively.

And I think that has very much to do with globalization and the speed of economic change, and the fact that successful and privileged parents are able to do huge amounts for their children, and are determined to do so, but also seriously worry that if they don’t their kids are going to be downwardly mobile. That it’s a really tough world out there, and there’s competition from outside the country in a way that there wasn’t in the past. I don’t think it's guilt, I think it's anxiety. I think it's linked to the determination of the parents that the next elite is made up of their kids and not other people’s. They don’t like to admit that to themselves. We all believe in social mobility as long as it doesn't mean that our kids are going to be downwardly mobile.

And on the Anne-Marie thing, I just disagree with her -- for the same reason really. I just think that the reality is in a very, very competitive world that essentially -- maybe if everybody could agree together that we’d all stop and restart tomorrow in a civilized way, you could do that. But who is going to be the first to do that? I have a friend who was at one stage a partner in a really top law firm and moved sideways to become an academic, and she was just saying that this was the reality. And you get the deals -- or if you're at a small startup you actually succeed -- because when it’s necessary you’re willing to be there.

Anything else you'd like to talk about that we didn't touch on?

There is one thing which almost nobody touches on: the fact that the great champions of successful girls are very often their fathers, and this is no longer an unusual thing. Everybody I spoke to had a supportive father. You look at the voting behavior of men who have daughters. And the people who are least willing to see women stay home and wait on their husbands are their fathers. And one thing you really see, even in Saudi Arabia, is fathers passing the family business on to the daughter, because the daughter is the one who's close to them, the daughter is like them, and the men really truly no longer feel, "Oh this isn't something for girls."

By Anna North

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Alison Wolf Anne-marie Slaughter Editor's Picks Feminism The Xx Factor Women