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Have Professional Women Created a Worse World for Their Working Class Peers?

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

In her new book, The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World, British economist Alison Wolf argues that as the gap between genders has narrowed for the affluent, the gap between rich and poor women has broadened. The former’s professional success is made possible by “the return of the servant classes”—almost uniformly female housekeepers and nannies who free their employers to pull farther ahead. “Until now, all women’s lives, whether rich or poor, have been dominated by the same experiences and pressures,” she writes. “Today, elite and highly educated women have become a class apart." I interviewed Wolf this week about her provocative argument and how it has been received.

Nora Caplan-Bricker: What made you want to write this book?

Alison Wolf: It came about partly because I’d written something a few years ago. I got asked by David Goodhart, the editor at that time at Prospect, because he was sort of puzzling away at the children thing—Why do any of us have children? I started to write then, and one of the things it made me aware of was there seemed to be this sort of moment when society changed and women started to part into two groups. My focus had been the growing role of education in the labor market. I work on the importance of education, the way we’ve become so credentialed as a society, the whole question of what skills we need; and one of the things you become very aware of if you do that is that education has been even more important for women that it has for men. I had lunch with a friend of mine who’s younger the other day and she said, “I never thought of you as a women person,” and I’m not, really. I’ve never started with women as the central subject before.

NCB: In the book, you mention the commentary on work versus family—from women like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg—and write, “Fewer women now take long breaks when their children are born, and very few graduates [with a college degree or higher] do so.” Did the work-life balance conversation influence the book?

AW: I think the work-life balance conversation was much less in my mind than the settling-down-and-having-children [conversation]. In England, I think one of the biggest issues at the moment is the sheer cost of childcare, the difficulty of keeping that thing going at all, so I suppose I was conscious that, along with all these other things, we had a real fall in the birthrate. We had lots of people who didn’t have children, often for very good reasons, and there’s the wondering why that played out the way it did, and if it’s something we should be worried about. Going through your thirties, there were things that used to be automatic, and which have shifted drastically. Work-life balance has different connotations in different parts of society. If you go to the very, very top and you look at the demands of the jobs which are the top half a percent, even the top tenth of a percent, I personally don’t believe we’re ever going to get work-life balance into those jobs any more than anybody did really in the past. It’s also why I believe they will never really be 50-50. I think we’ll end up one-third to two-thirds at the very, very top, as a kind of stable thing. I’m an academic because although I work all the time, I have amazing control over when and where I do it. I think for a lot of women, that is appealing, and there will always be more women who make that choice than men.

NCB: The frame for the book is, “how the rise of working women has created a far less equal world.” Of course, women’s entry into the workforce is the historic change we’re looking at, but both men and women at the top of the economic ladder are dependent on the wage labor of (mostly) women at the bottom. Why did you choose to emphasize women’s culpability?

AW: It’s not about blaming women. I have to confess that one of the things I was slightly responding to is a tendency to be constantly complaining about things not being perfect for the top five percent of women, so there was a little spasm of irritation there, but it was actually much deeper than that. I do think women were oppressed [for] most of human history, and it’s absolutely wonderful that I was born late enough to be allowed to use my brain; I suppose in a way, it’s underlining the human dilemma that, in any society, it turns out almost everything has a downside. We can’t get perfection, and we can’t get perfect equality, and this is something we have to face up to. If professional women are going to be successful, then they do have to call on the labor of other people—other men or other women—and the reality is, we as human beings would rather have women looking after our babies than men. This is part of the price. It’s a slightly Faustian bargain. This is not absolving men—they’re part of it as well.

NCB: What kind of response have you gotten?

AW: I haven’t been attacked for it, which I thought I would be. I thought I would be really heavily criticized for it and I haven’t been. It makes people uncomfortable, I think, but responses I’ve had here have been to say, well yes, yes that’s right, and we ought to recognize it, and we ought to do something about it. The most enthusiastic have been my elderly, leftist, sort-of workers’ rights friends.

NCB: How would you characterize your book? It’s a grim tale of inequality, but it also seems hopeful about women’s future—which is it?

AW: It’s both. I believe profoundly that that’s what life is: It’s good and bad, it’s rain and sun, it’s sun and rain. I am an academic and I like to understand the world that surrounds me, and what I felt I got out of writing it is that mixture. It is more hopeful than not hopeful. When you understand things it’s easier to do things. I also believe, like Francis Bacon, that knowledge is power. I think it’s ultimately a celebration of the fact that we’ve had a revolution in human affairs which to me, on balance, has been radically positive. It’s not like everybody had their lives transformed for the better. We are still living on the labor of other people, but so was everybody in the past. It’s saying, okay, there are things that are unfinished, there are things that are not right, but we have truly transformed the world in which we live. It’s a completely different society and one that to me is definitely for the better. I cannot see why one would want to go back.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.