Road to cor­ner of­fice frac­tures sis­ter­hood

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Julie Carl

WHAT a great book this might have been if only Sh­eryl Sand­berg hadn’t beaten it to the punch. For what’s an aca­demic to do af­ter in­vest­ing sev­eral years and much ef­fort into re­search­ing a book on women in the work­place only to find Sand­berg’s much-hyped best­seller, Lean In, got there first? If you’re Ali­son Wolf, renowned Bri­tish econ­o­mist, di­rec­tor of pub­lic ser­vices pol­icy and man­age­ment at Lon­don’s King’s Col­lege, re­cip­i­ent of the Com­man­der of the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire (one step be­low be­ing a Dame in the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment peck­ing or­der, two steps up from the Bea­tles), you find a snappy ti­tle even if all that im­pres­sive re­search doesn’t ex­actly back it up and hope for the best. Per­haps that’s not en­tirely fair. Wolf presents an im­pres­sive depth of re­search in her first chap­ter to nicely make the point that mid­dle-class women have soared in the last 40 to 50 years, with their ac­cess to halls of higher learn­ing and so­ci­ety’s ac­cep­tance that mar­ried women will work. But, Wolf says, it’s all at the ex­pense of a frac­tured sis­ter­hood. Yes, well-ed­u­cated women are do­ing just fine, but the lot of women not aca­dem­i­cally in­clined or with­out re­sources for higher ed­u­ca­tion has im­proved lit­tle, if at all. They con­tinue to work at me­nial labour, of­ten clean­ing or care­tak­ing for the low wages paid by well-ed­u­cated women, and take their ssta­tus in life from hav­ing chil­dren early. There’s a gap­ing chasm in the qual­ity of life be­tween mid­dle- and work­ing­class women, a gap that’s ex­pected to ggrow.

But it’s a lit­tle less clear “how the rise of work­ing women has cre­ated a far less equal world,” as Wolf’s sub­ti­tle claims. In­ter­est­ing fact: the book’s sub­ti­tle when it was re­leased in Bri­tain ear­lier this year, was “how women are cre­at­ing a new so­ci­ety.” It, too, con­fused re­view­ers. It would help if the reader could de­ter­mine whether this is a man­i­festo for pro­gres­sives ral­ly­ing the troops to bet­ter the lot of work­ing-class women. Or is it a tool to be co-opted by re­gres­sives, per­haps Amer­ica’s Tea Party, to blud­geon mid­dle-class women out of the work force and back into the home? Maybe Wolf in­tended to leave the book’s pur­pose to the eye of the be­holder, but a lit­tle hint one way or the other could have cleared up much con­fu­sion. Things get even fog­gier as she veers off into a vast ar­ray of re­search that seems to be apro­pos of noth­ing. Some of it is in­ter­est­ing on its own. It’s news that most of the self-made fe­male bil­lion­aires in the world are in China. But Wolf’s ar­gu­ment is a lit­tle strained that it’s be­cause wages are low in a de­vel­op­ing econ­omy such as China’s so th­ese women can af­ford help in the home. Two hun­dred years ago, she says, Bri­tain was be­com­ing one of the first in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions, wages were low thus ser­vants read­ily avail­able, yet Bri­tish women did not rise to be­come ti­tans of in­dus­try. Other re­search is not so in­ter­est­ing. It’s not news that women used to have only sex and their looks to trade for a sta­tion in life. Nor is it news that A stu­dents, both male and fe­male, tend to lose their vir­gin­ity later in life. Nor that the in­tro­duc­tion of the birth-con­trol pill in 1960 brought great free­dom to women. The XX Fac­tor finds its roots in a 2006 es­say called Work­ing Girls, which Wolf wrote for Prospect, a U.K. mag­a­zine. Many a heated ar­gu­ment was waged across Bri­tain over the 4,500-word piece, which pointed out, among other things, that the fem­i­nism of the ’60s and ’70s was in fact the death of sis­ter­hood. Per­haps 4,500 words was enough to make her point. Another 475 pages just stretches the the­sis too thin. Julie Carl is the Winnipeg Free Press as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor of reader en­gage­ment.

The XX Fac­tor How the Rise of Work­ing Women Has Cre­ated a Far Less Equal World By Ali­son Wolf Allen Lane, 375 pages, $34

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