The XX Factor

The women left behind by professional equality.

Following an opinion piece by Labour MP Austin Mitchell in the Daily Mail, the role of women in politics is once again under scrutiny. “More amenable and leadable" is how Mitchell described women MPs. Meanwhile, a new study claims that female bosses earn 35% less than their male counterparts – over forty years after the Equal Pay Act was designed to put an end to such discrepancies. Have things changed since the labour market of the 1920s and ‘30s? Or is there still much to be done?

We spoke to labour market expert and Professor of Public Sector Management, Alison Wolf about gender equality in business and politics. Wolf is Director of the International Centre for University Policy at KCL, she headed a major government review on education in 2011 and is author of The XX Factor.


Is it a conundrum that the closer women come to equality of employment, for professional educated women, the weaker the ties and affinity across womankind?

I don’t particularly think it is a conundrum, to be honest. The better women do, the more important it becomes compared to gender. It seems to me that when we analysed society in the past, when women tended to be quite invisible, people would talk a great deal about conflicting class interests and conflicting interests of different groups. In the past, being a woman decided so much about your life – you could have been a rich or poor woman – but you had a huge amount in common with women of other classes because you were all so restricted in what you could and couldn’t do. Well once that ceases, then the differences, to put it bluntly, in class interests, in the interests of different groups, goes across to women just as much as it does to men.

The amazing gains of the last twenty or thirty years, in terms of educated and professional women, haven’t helped to alleviate the circumstances women as a whole. There are women who’ve been left behind, aren’t there?

I don’t see particularly why they should. I don’t want to imply that there haven’t been improvements for all women in the sense that they are freer, more independent, more able to live on their own; everyone’s got richer, they have more choices, more equal partnerships. But I’ve never really understood why, if a woman becomes head of a bank, it should be good for all women.

In the same way as Margaret Thatcher becoming prime minister?

Exactly. In one way it was a symbol of the fact that women were now able to be prime minister, but lots of women couldn’t for the life of them see in what sense she represented them, and they were quite right to because she didn’t. She represented other people, including a lot of men.

Is it part of the thesis that capitalism has never been good at making sure people aren’t left behind, and that this is just another example of that?

Absolutely. I don’t think many societies have been good at making sure people are not left behind, including but not confined to capitalism. So if the implication is that this was different in socialist societies, I never noticed that.

Do you think that professional women are at the top and leading lives more like men and making decisions more like men professionally and personally? Is that a problem or not?

It’s not a problem, and in most respects it’s a great gain. I do believe in people being allowed to fulfill their potential; it’s just not utopia, it’s not in any sense a problem except for the men who would have had top jobs if women didn’t now have them. So it’s a problem only for men who are doing less well than they might otherwise have been.

I don’t want it to be seen as creating a problem. What I want to underline is that if one group of women succeed, that’s great for them, but it doesn’t create equality in society and it doesn’t create equality for women any more than it creates equality for men.

It’s a mammoth step forward, I don’t believe any group should be barred from things by virtue of something they’re born with – but does it create a problem? Well, the one problem you could argue it creates, and I think this possibly is a real problem, is that you’ve now got families at the top whose social capital is even greater than top families in the past. When you have two really successful professionals with two really great networks, and two parents dedicated to their children’s futures and all the rest of it, you could say that this is likely to make it even harder for people to come up than it did before.

On the flip side, as I say in my book, I’m not entirely sure about it because these people tend to have very small families. But I don’t want to imply that it makes society worse than it was. That’s absolutely not the case. We have societies in which half the brain power on the planet was never allowed to use it properly, but changing this doesn’t solve all problems. It doesn’t wipe away inequality; it doesn’t wipe away unequal opportunities; it doesn’t wipe away all the other things which messianic feminism – perhaps like all messianic movements – seems to think would be solved if you could only get opportunities for all the talented women, as if somehow you’d wake up one morning and everything in the world would be set to rights.

Should one make a difference here between the business world and politics and legislation?  For example, you look at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) – there aren’t many female faces. If change is going to happen more generally, and change that would affect women of all statuses and backgrounds, is it really in the legislature where the change needs to happen?

In terms of there not being many women visible at PMQs, there are two things I want to say. Firstly, my book was very much about the top 15-20%, which is where you’re getting level pegging, at the very, very top. I don’t think you’ll get 50/50 unless you get women suddenly deciding that they’d like fathers for their children who are happy to stay at home and be househusbands. By and large, if they have children – and some women don’t have children and then it’s not an issue – most women still want to be the primary parent. But they also want to have fathers for their children who are alpha males, so we’ve now got a significant number of highly-educated professional women who have no children; for them it’s not an issue.

There are countries where they’ve got a much higher proportion of female legislators than we do. I would have thought we’d get much closer to it, and I don’t really buy the arguments that PMQs is the problem. But I do think there’s always going to be a tendency for there not to be 50/50 at the very peak.

I don’t think any of this has much to do with legislation, though. I think legislation did play a role in the early days because one of the things that’s really shocking to us, when you read about the labour market in the 1920s and 1930s, is how much it was taken for granted that you just paid women less to do the same job. So I do think legislation was important in that context, and that it did play a role but that it came in because attitudes changed and the world changed. 

But I don’t think that if you start having laws that say you’ve got to have fifty percent women in parliament, sure, you will get fifty percent women, but you’ll also get a situation where everybody assumes that most of the women are only there because you’ve got a quota and that’s not good for anybody.

So, I think in things that are unbelievably demanding, not the 10-15%, the 0.1% – and a political career is seriously demanding – I think you’ll only get total equality if you get a change in the way successful women organise their lives and I don’t see any sign of that. I don’t see any sign that large numbers of successful women have decided that they want less-talented, less-ambitious stay-at-home husbands to do what wives used to do. I just don’t see it.

Is the professionalisation of women eroding the voluntary sector and perhaps even civil society more generally?

I think it is. There’s this rather nice cliché that every silver lining has a cloud and I do think it’s absolutely true. There was this period when you had these very talented women who really poured their energies into civil society, into charity, local politics as opposed to national politics, all that kind of thing. When you start digging around, looking at the biographies of people, you look at what life was like, and there was an enormous benefit to this behaviour. But you can’t go back in time, and it was also much better suited to a world that was less mobile, less dominated by big cities than our world is now.

So I don’t think you can go back, but I really do think it’s a genuine loss. I think that we now lead lives which are lacking that dimension: you work and then you have incredibly intense parenting, and other bits of social life just go by the wayside. And I don’t see it changing. One thing that also depresses me in that respect is this assumption that anyone who’s in politics is in it for themselves, and a feeling that, I know people talk about volunteering, but really and truly what we respect is people who have paid salaries. I think it is partly values; I think it’s that women don’t have to do it, but it’s also a genuine change in values, and the change in values and the change in career opportunities reinforce each other and I think that’s a real downside. Not that I’m very different – here am I teaching and working crazy professional hours.

Within the professional sector of women in society, aren’t women doing very different jobs to the ones men are doing?

I think the case where men and women are really different is not the professional classes. I mean there are some differences, like the majority of doctors are now women and the majority of bankers, I’m pretty sure, are still men, and that tends to be related to a number of things including how much of your life you’re willing to spend on aeroplanes. All the professions are pretty mixed, as I said it’s 60/40 maybe.

But the place you really get the difference is not there, the place you’ve got a real gender divide is where you’ve got huge numbers of people working in occupations that are either overwhelmingly female, or really pretty overwhelmingly male. And that, I think, is one of the dramatic differences: that the professional bit of society lives in a genuinely mixed world, whereas when you look at other people, far more of their lives are spent among people of the same gender.

It’s partly white collar/blue collar, but it’s also kind of, middling white collar as opposed to professional white collar. I know there are male nurses, but it’s still overwhelmingly female and I guess this is blue collar, but there really aren’t many female long-distance lorry drivers. Whereas, if you look around your office, or if I think of my department, it’s pretty mixed.

If one of the arguments here is that professional women are living more like men and making choices more like men and that now there’s this disjunction between professional and non-professional women, is there an argument to say that professional women have made great gains by assimilating into a patriarchal job market? Should women try to re-imagine the job market into their own image?

I can’t see it personally. This is very much what the old feminists believed. They believed it was all the fault of capitalism and if women ruled the world everything would be different and everybody would be peaceful and there would be equality and all the rest of it. I just don’t see it. There are things that professional women would like, bigger subsidies for childcare, perhaps, if they’ve got children. I’m not sure that single professional women want anything different from single professional men. I mean, they have all sorts of different desires, so not everybody wants the same thing, but is there anything to suggest that women behave significantly differently towards each other, that they are less competitive?

There’s all this stuff about leadership style, and I think that there probably are some differences. But what’s interesting when you look at, it’s very much two curves overlapping, and the differences are at the end – there are some styles that seem highly male and some that seem highly female, but there’s not that much difference. I mean, there plenty of nice male managers and plenty of brutal female managers, so again, I just really think that the differences are not that great.

Do we not have enough evidence yet because we don’t have enough female leaders? So, for example. people make wild assertions that if we had more women around the cabinet table we wouldn’t go to war?

I mean Theresa May is the first Home Secretary we’ve had who’s faced down the police. People always look at Margaret Thatcher, but we can look at Barbara Castle, Theresa May, Harriet Harman; again the question is are they atypical because there aren’t very many of them? If you look at Norway, which currently has a right-wing female conservative prime minister, there’s a country with a huge number of female politicians. Of course there are some differences, but it’s not obvious that there’s this huge difference in female leadership styles and male leadership styles. I mean Angela Merkel is slightly soothing in a way which is, I suppose you might say, quintessentially female, but then you might go to Margaret Thatcher and say that she was quintessentially female too. But certainly not very soothing.

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