Alison Wolf's 'XX Factor': Has Education Made Women Less Equal?

Alison Wolf is standing on 118th Street in front of Columbia University in New York City's Upper West Side, flagging me down with a waving arm. I’m late to meet her. She has the British cell phone from which she’s just called me in one hand and is cursing her American phone company for screwing up her service. Finally finding each other, we take the elevator up to the top of the building and sit down in an expansive, empty classroom to talk about Wolf’s new book.

In The XX Factor (Crown), the British economist and journalist argues that the rise of feminism and the highly educated, empowered woman has created a small, female elite 15 percent that’s quickly becoming segregated from the rest of womankind. Gone is a common female bond, instead replaced by two distinct classes: the 85 percent of women who lead home-focused lives and gendered jobs —ones that have traditionally fallen to women — and the well-educated 15 percent at the top, whose work habits and career choices are more parallel to men's. “Feminists once talked of ‘the sisterhood,’ but educated, successful women today have fewer interests in common with other women than ever before,” Wolf writes.

“I’ve always been interested in how education worked for women and has been good for women, and I started digging into this,” Wolf says to me, leaning forward over the table. “What it made me incredibly aware of was that education really had created a pathway for the top 15 percent, but for the rest of the 85 percent, it wasn’t clear to me that it really had created any social mobility … On the one hand, [women] like me were, through education, moving into 50 percent of professional jobs, other people were working in these either male or female environments.”

The book is an extensively researched work that dives into the habits of these XX women, underscoring the allegedly growing divide between them and less-educated females in terms of their professional, sexual, marital, financial, political, and childbearing habits. One of the most glaring trends she observed was that women and men in these elite classes marry each other more, which increases income gaps and makes harder social mobility. As this divide between classes increases, it creates a self-sustaining cycle, Wolf argues. Whether or not you agree with Wolf’s theses, it makes for a compelling, timely read.

Wolf’s own story doesn’t sound like a far cry from the XX women she describes. On the university-bound path from her early days in Newbury, a small town in southern England, Wolf attended Oxford and the University of Neuchâtel, then spent her early career as a policy analyst in the U.S. She is currently a professor at King’s College in London. She is married to the economics journalist Martin Wolf — also Oxford-educated. As Wolf notes in The XX Factor, “Successful women don’t like to marry down.”

“When you look at marriage patterns, elite men and women make more stable marriages — as well as particularly self-reinforcing ones,” Wolf says.

Wolf is a fountain of information as she talks about the trends she found in her research, almost gushing facts and statistics. For a moment, I feel less like an interviewer and more like a student in her lecture hall, and I have the urge to pull out a pen and pad and start taking notes should I miss something invaluable.

Wolf tells me that her book didn't originate from a set theory she set out to prove; instead, the concept germinated from “following her nose,” digging deeper into patterns she began discovering in her research, particularly in politics. “It was realizing that women vote for the same reason men do — they vote out of anxiety, self-interest, and all the rest of it,” Wolf says. “Why did women vote differently than men? Why did they see their perspectives as so different? And it was very much related to the fact that so many of them were working low-paid, part-time, service jobs — they had a really different, gendered work life, whereas at the top, where we do all the wingeing about gender, we really didn’t have a gendered work life at all any more. That was what made me wonder, Well, suppose I just followed my nose.”

Wolf says that one of the things that surprised her most was when people were analyzing stats, they often overlooked data inside the female group for graduates versus non-graduates — and that’s where she started to see dramatic discrepancies within the gender. “It didn’t make sense to talk about ‘women’ anymore most of the time,” she says. She argues that we need to talk about two groups of women.

So, how do we address the massive chasm that Wolf argues has been put between the elite and the other 85 percent? Wolf says the trends that she’s examining haven’t begun to finish playing themselves out, so it’s hard to forecast the right solution for eliminating the issue.

“I don’t think you can close the gap by doing something to the labor market, and I actually think this is about worldwide changes and about the disappearance of manufacturing. And I don’t think that education is ever going to be a miracle, because the top families will always have more access,” Wolf says. “Truthfully, what one can and should try to do is redistribute more. One of the results of this is that people at the top are earning amounts that are just obscene and there is really no reason why we can’t have very comfortable lives and pay more tax.”

She favors tax breaks for small businesses and points to Japan for a model of creating jobs for its citizens that could “easily be done by machines instead.” And, despite their precarious economic standing, she cites Italy as a good model for an economy in which small industries are encouraged.

Wolf also advocates tightening up education, saying that the elite have to get out of private schools and back into the public systems. She credits Canada and Australia as large countries doing a relatively good job with public education. “They have good teacher training, they have good very, very well-established curricula that they've changed gradually. They don’t have anything like [the U.S.’s] center cities or even English center cities … The point is that you have stability, you train your teachers, and you actually get rid of the bad ones. You have parents who are motivated, you do your very best to keep the public schools good enough that the professional classes use them. No system can do really well with its public education system if a significant part of the elite have opted out.”

Should the elite feel guilty about leaving most of women in the dust after reading The XX Factor?

“I don’t think they should feel guilty — they should feel grateful,” Wolf says. “We should be much more appreciative of the women of the first half of the 20th century for the time they put in volunteering and doing things that none of us do. I don’t think we should feel guilty about taking our chances to do well. I do think we should feel more aware of how tough everyone else is finding it, and I do think we should be willing to pay higher taxes, and that when we get into our 60s and we stop working flat-out, instead of spending time on cruises, we should be willing to put a lot more back in.”

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