'True lies' about the glass escalator

Key Issues in Women's Work
February 18, 2005

What are the latest trends in women's employment and how can they be accounted for? Why is there both a feminisation of the workforce and persistent occupational segregation? How much domestic work do women provide? Why are women still the main providers of childcare at a time when more and more remain childless? What are the glass ceiling and the glass escalator?

Catherine Hakim provides pertinent answers to these questions and many others in a revised edition of her ground-breaking book Key Issues in Women's Work , which was first published in 1996.

Backed up with recent evidence as well as expanded international data, the new edition reasserts her arguments against the "many true lies" about women's work - which have been created, in her view, by feminist social research - and remains a key source of detailed data on women's work.

This new edition, which is aimed at undergraduate and graduate students as well as policymakers, offers an easy-to-read review of current relevant theories and statistical findings on women's work. It is a user-friendly book that contains self-explanatory tables and figures and practical author and subject indexes.

Hakim's contribution is unique in that she acknowledges and uses disciplines beyond the scope of sociology, social policy and gender studies: psycho-physiology, economics, history and law are cleverly deployed. Her challenges to many feminist claims make the book singular and thought-provoking even for sceptical readers.

Her theory revolves around the fact that women have lifestyle preferences of three distinct types: work-centred, home-centred (both of them in the minority) and adaptive ("about two thirds of all women in any country", who combine domestic work and employment without prioritising either).

The advantage of her theory, she claims, is that it can be generalised to all industrialised countries and that it acknowledges women's heterogeneity and polarisation in our individualised, post-patriarchal societies, in which individual preferences are increasingly important. However, Hakim's theory does not explore why women make supposedly "genuine" choices between work and home careers: she seems to ignore structural and contextual constraints as well as gendered social norms that shape choices.

Unfortunately, Hakim declines to acknowledge the diversity of various feminist theories on women's work and their relevance to the topic. Reviewing debates surrounding women's life choices, she also fails to accurately present the views of her significant and numerous critics.

Feminist sociologists will wince at Hakim's recurrent critique and misrepresentation of many of their works. She labels some of them as unscientific or politically biased, when she herself could be criticised for her heterosexist bias and for her denial of the persistence of patriarchal structures in modern society.

This new edition of Key Issues in Women's Work is recommended for anyone who wants a transdisciplinary overview of current trends and recent evolutions in women's work in industrialised societies, but the veracity of Hakim's theoretical frameworks and explanations are best left to the reader's individual judgement.

Marjolaine Roger is researching a PhD in women's studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

Key Issues in Women's Work: Female Diversity and the Polarisation of Women's Employment

Author - Catherine Hakim
Publisher - GlassHouse Press
Pages - 258
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 904385 16 8

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