How working women have created a less equal world

September 26, 2013

My well-thumbed copy of The XX Factor

Alison Wolf is just arriving in the US to discuss her book, with its provocative (sub) title - The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World. I met her in London recently, and she'll feature in the next episode of The Broad Experience. I tore through the book, though I didn't really expect to. Perhaps I've become too used to reading self-helpish books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In (which I enjoyed), but knowing Wolf was a longtime professor and expert on labor markets, I feared I might have to plow through a pretty dry tome. But, career academic though she is, Wolf thankfully doesn't write like one. 

The book talks about the extent to which modern working women's lives would be impossible without the poorly paid labor of millions of other women. People like me, and probably you, Wolf says, can have the lives we do because some other female is looking after our children, cleaning our house, doing our dry cleaning or looking after our elderly parents - all work that would have been done by women - for free - just a few decades ago. She's not saying this is a terrible thing, but she takes readers on a fascinating tour of just how much educated women's lives have changed in the past half century or so, and how, by comparison, less educated women's have not. She reminds us that, until the pill came along, sex really was the key to women's livelihoods, whether you look at that from the perspective of women 'saving themselves' for marriage - which was their livelihood in many cases - or women actually earning their living through prostitution. She also has interesting data on how many sexual partners women with degrees have compared to other women, and how much this has changed over the years - this is all part of her contention that 'elite women' live quite different lives from everyone else on the planet. In short, highly educated women, on the whole, have sex later than others (all the better to concentrate on our grades and careers). But education seems to make women more adventurous - or encourages them to take their time in finding 'the one', because these days women with degrees have a slightly higher number of sexual partners than those without.

And you know how we all think of the Scandinavian countries as beacons of equality? 

"The thing no one believes till I tell them is that Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have the most segregated labor markets in the world in terms of men and women working separately...if you walk into the Swedish or Danish parliament you see lots of women…but the Scandinavians very early on outsourced domestic life, daycare centers, care for elderly...all the sorts of things mothers used to do in the home they turned into paid labor. So what happened was vast numbers of women who used to do female type things at home [now do] female type things in the labor market.

...So you’ve got this enormous female workforce that’s staffing the welfare state, and a professional life that is not more integrated than anywhere else." 

The book is packed with interesting data (of note: it wasn't the advent of the vacuum cleaner or dishwasher, but the invention of frozen meals that really saw women entering the workforce in numbers), and information on working women in different parts of the world. Wolf also takes her hat off to the educated women of the past who spent many hours a week volunteering. That world has pretty much gone, Wolf says, and we're worse off for it. 

That said, she has no desire to go back to the kitchen. 

The new show will be out on October 7th.