Monday, September 30, 2013

Equal Rights—Unequal Consequences

Alison Wolf, The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World

Women’s roles have changed. We can look around and know that. But that doesn’t make those changes obvious. Even more, while social leaders debate whether those changes have been beneficial, they certainly have costs that even the most strident detractor hasn’t noticed. British labor researcher Alison Wolf has analyzed the data, and pulls conclusions that both feminists and traditionalists will find surprising.

Feminists have made much about whether women have equal work opportunity, equal pay, and equal hope of advancement in society. Wolf answers: it depends. Indeed, a great deal depends on your perspective. That’s because advancements in opportunities available to women have opened a massive gulf between highly educated, economically high-achieving women in the top fifth of wage earners, and everyone else.

Wolf asserts that women in the top quintile enjoy remarkable opportunity, equality, and autonomy, Steinem-era feminist promises made manifest. Indeed, because women are generally better prepared for college at the traditional age, and education (generally) correlates with economic advancement, a generation of highly prepared women may inherit society’s pinnacle. The old boy network may inhibit top-achieving women, but the operative word today is “old.”

The other four-fifths of women face economic pressures to work, but remain in a heavily segregated workforce. Despite some high-profile women truckers and cops, most working women continue doing, for pay, jobs they would do for free at home, like nursing, housekeeping, or child care. And economic impediments mean most women can’t cross the gap between the bottom four-fifths and the top.

These gaps have broad, unexpected consequences. Top-achieving women more often postpone getting married and having children, sometimes postponing them altogether (usually unintentionally). If they do have kids, they often farm child-rearing responsibilities to hired help. The recent rise of extreme wealth in certain sectors has led, Wolf says, to a reemergence of formerly dying servant jobs. Poor women’s opportunities less resemble their mothers’ lives than their great-grandmothers’.

Some of what Wolf describes could encompass general society. The widening gap between high-achieving professionals and the middle and lower classes, for instance, requires expensive, time-consuming credentials to cross, regardless of sex. But Wolf describes other ramifications that drive wedges between populations of women that were former allies. The “sisterhood” beloved by feminist leaders seems increasingly like a naïve vestige of bygone days.

Much as I appreciate Dr. Wolf’s analysis of the present, she contrasts it to an overly romanticized past. Women formerly, Wolf claims, were unified across class, race, and nationality in social pressures. All women were expected, someday, to marry and have children; even highly educated women from wealthy backgrounds would necessarily stop working eventually and assume the wife and mother role.

But did they really? Second-wave feminist leaders, who were preponderantly white and Jewish, initially met serious serious setbacks when they discovered that Black women had their own unique needs. And those same feminist leaders were originally hostile to lesbians, prompting angry defections from early supporters like Rita Mae Brown. One starts to suspect that women weren’t nearly as unified as Wolf presents.

Similarly, Wolf never quite sheds her geographical blinders. Though the statistics she cites compile women’s situations across regions, and frequently across national borders, she supplements these stats with interviews with high-skilled professional women, mostly women in her own network. As a professor at King’s College London, Wolf’s net primarily falls, unsurprisingly, across London and Manhattan.

Your typical Brit visiting America never ventures outside Manhattan and San Francisco. And your typical American visiting Britain never leaves London and the Lake District. But women (people, really) in rural areas like the American prairie or the Scottish Border region have categorically different opportunities. Prairie girls may become doctors and lawyers, but almost certainly lack the connections to become lucrative financial managers.

When Wolf divides women into quintiles, the women in the top fifth are substantially concentrated in large coastal cities. Manhattan makes a good example: the exodus of manufacturing from the American Northeast has left NYC with perpetually impoverished service industry workers, fabulously wealthy financial managers—and nothing in between. Bill Moyers quotes Nickolay Lamm that Manhattan has become a portrait of uncrossable extremes.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Wolf’s book does make a valuable contribution to a balanced library. Readers willing to think critically can mine her study for information, in which it is awash. Just remember to test what she writes against what you already know, or what you’re willing to learn. Society is changing, and that includes gender roles. Wolf gives us valuable tools to stay ahead of that change.

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