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Review: The XX Factor by Alison Wolf

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

In the twenty-first century, the inequality in the workplace between men and women may still exist, but it is no longer the greatest challenge facing working women. Many professional women are ambitious and highly educated, and their work and their lifestyles often have more in common with their male counterparts than with other women. This, Alison Wolf argues in her provocative new book, is the true inequality: the rise of “professional” working women has led has created a growing income and social gap between them and other, non-college educated women. (Usually, I would refer to this second class as “working class women”, but since Wolf calls her professional, college-educated cohorts “working women” I fear that would be too confusing.) Female CEOs, professors and financial leaders may enjoy unprecedented opportunities, but by stepping out into the workforce many of these women end up outsourcing traditionally female tasks like cooking, housecleaning, and childrearing to other women who do not reap many of the freedoms and benefits given to these working women.

I have to admit, this book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be yet another book about the difference between men and women in the workplace, which would have been nice to read about. Well, not nice – informative? I was curious what the arguments would be behind why working women create a less equal world in a male vs. female context. Anyway. When this book arrived I was intrigued, because I had never really considered the opportunity differences between “professional” working women and “regular” working women, or how divergent the two groups become over time.

For, as Wolf shows over and over again, the two groups are drifting apart. They work more hours at their jobs, return to part-time and full-time work sooner after giving birth, and (obviously) earn more money. Educated women tend to have fewer children later in life. I think that these facts surprise no one. But some of the tidbits that Wolf uncovered certainly surprised me. Educated women tend to marry more and divorce less than their working class counterparts. For several decades after the introduction of the Pill, college women tended to be much more promiscuous than women with only a high-school diploma, although this has since evened out. Professional women tend to lose their virginity later than other women, but they’re also more adventurous in the bedroom. Really, the chapter on sex alone is quite fascinating and worth the price of the book alone.
But as Wolf points out, there’s a bit of a dark side to women in the workforce. Once upon a time, the best and brightest women became teachers, because that was virtually the only career available to them. Now, these best and brightest can choose from a dazzling array of careers, and frankly the women who become teachers are often not the top of the crop. Likewise, when the vast majority of middle class women didn’t work, they spent their time volunteering for charitable organizations or social causes. Now, even popular organizations like the Girl Scouts have trouble recruiting volunteers because the women who have the skills needed to keep these groups running are too busy with their careers. Since many government programs now provide many of the services that these volunteers used to provide, like running food kitchens or collecting funds for orphanages, this may not be a great loss, but it’s an interesting cultural shift that I wasn’t even aware of before reading The XX Factor.

One thing about the book that did bother me was that the author’s examples of professional women seemed largely drawn from her rolodex. While she cites many studies and research articles in the book – the appendix, footnotes, and bibliography number well over one hundred pages – the personal stories seem largely drawn from friends and friends-of-friends. That was a little disappointing, especially since Wolf’s circle of friends doesn’t include a lot of “working class” women, so there were few contributions from that group to the narrative Wolf created.

But in terms of raising awareness of a growing equality gap between women, Wolf’s book did a lot to open my eyes, so I’m really glad that I read it.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about The XX Factor, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Movie: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
2011: Fashionista Piranha on hold for a few weeks!
2010: Closing down for end of year Festivus…
2009: Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham and Steve Leialoha
2008: A Constant Heart by Siri Mitchell


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