The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society by Alison Wolf

A better gender balance in government benefits all, Sylvia Walby observes

June 27, 2013

Fascinated by the emergence of highly educated, fully employed women, Alison Wolf here takes us on a scenic tour of their brave new world to marvel at this exotic species.

Young women have become as well educated as young men. This means that an elite group of women have newfound access to a range of top professional jobs, and they have seized the opportunity with alacrity around the world.

The high performance of these women in the workplace has transformative effects on the rest of their lives. They choose not to have children, or at least to have fewer of them. They can construct new forms of intimacy, which Wolf illustrates with extracts from US television programmes Sex and the City and Friends.

Wolf rightly notes that not all women have shared in this gender transformation; it is confined to those who are educationally successful. Women without these credentials remain in a world that is focused on children and homes. Traditional gender patterns coexist with the new ones, and this creates inequalities between women.

While the basics of this account are not new, The XX Factor is engagingly written. Wolf’s text has a light touch and is full of personal anecdotes, but it is also well footnoted, with a scholar’s careful attention to sources.

Wolf is right that well-educated working women are creating a new society. But there are significant absences and omissions that disrupt her picture of the world.

Some women are doing well in education and professional jobs, but this is not the same as entering the full range of positions with power. Women are still sorely lacking in the top political positions in government, on corporate boards, as CEOs of companies – in short, in the citadels of power.

So while some women have entered a highly educated professional workforce, they do not control the most important levers of power in most societies. The difference that access can make can be seen in issues such as childcare.

When women are in government, as in Nordic countries such as Sweden, there is more public childcare, better maternity, paternity and parental leave, and replacement-level fertility rates, rather than the low birth rates found among the professional women Wolf studies. Those countries that adopt child-friendly policies get more children and tend to be the ones with a more equal gender balance in government decision-making.

The decision-makers who refuse to fund universal childcare are not the professional women who have captured Wolf’s attention. The treasuries and finance ministries in the UK and the US are not full of women. Likewise, those who decide to cut public expenditure rather than collect more funding by raising tax or closing tax loopholes and tax havens are not professional women.

Wolf has rediscovered class and rightly so, but she does not pick up the tools that are available to analyse it. The failure of many governments to publicly fund the childcare that would allow all women into full employment is linked to a complex intersection of gender and class projects that results in a diminished conception of the public good, of which children are surely part.

Greater attention to variations in the lives of women between countries, in the forms of gender regimes that structure choices differently in different places, would have enabled a more nuanced account of the pattern of contemporary gender relations. Then we could have seen how the greater presence of women in government and more balance in gendered decision-making generate different outcomes in the lives of women and men. Educated women have not stopped having children everywhere. “Birth strike” is the consequence of full employment without childcare.

While Wolf offers an engaging account of the transformation of gendered worlds in some countries, other work shows that other worlds are possible and indeed already exist.

The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society

By Alison Wolf
Profile, 464pp, £15.99
ISBN 9781846684036 and 9781847654489 (e-book)
Published 25 April 2013

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