The XX Factor

By Alison Wolf

We’re probably right to be suspicious of statistics, ranking them, in the popular formulation, somewhere after lies and damn lies. Numbers can be interpreted in lots of different ways. It isn’t always easy to separate the signal from the noise in polling data and the results of social studies in particular are capable of being spun in all directions.

Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor makes use of a lot of statistics, survey results, charts and graphics, to make its case. But for all the seeming clarity and certainty these seem to bring, some questions remain — which is not surprising, given the highly politicized nature of her subject.

That subject is the lives and loves of today’s well-educated, ambitious and successful professional women. All of those adjectives come into play because the women Wolf is most concerned with are a self-conscious global elite, constituting the top quintile of the economic pyramid. They have been to the best schools and have moved on to high-earning careers in business, law, and finance.

In short, they are, to use a really unpleasant and pretty much meaningless designation Wolf, a British economist, adopts far too readily, “alpha females.”

The backstory is a familiar one. Since the 1960s, with the main catalyst for change being “the Pill,” women have been able to take advantage of the greater opportunities available to them and entered a golden age of financial independence, employment choices and sexual freedom. The only catch has been that the “alpha females” who have done the best have been doing it for themselves, just like generations of alpha males have always done.

Indeed, since — as studies have shown — like tends to gravitate to like and money marries money, these alpha females end up marrying those alpha males and breeding alpha children. Meanwhile, the lifeways and conditions of non-elite women have scarcely changed at all and in some relative terms have been getting worse. Gendered employment ghettoes still exist and some old ones have been given new life. In particular, recent years have seen the rise of a new servant class of maids and nannies hired at low wages to do the domestic labour that alpha moms have no time for.

This is what Wolf means when she says the feminist vision of sisterhood is fatally fractured and that gender altruism is dead. This is not quite the same thing though as saying that the rise of working women has created a far less equal world. At most this shift has only exacerbated an ongoing process.

The growth of economic inequality in recent decades — the great divergence or erosion of the middle class — has been the result of a number of different factors, including technology, globalization and government action. And the decline in altruism and civic involvement has been just as complex a long-term trend. Feminism and the pill weren’t the only reasons, or even among the main reasons, we started bowling alone.

But in any event, the bottom line is clear enough, even though Wolf is hesitant to draw it this sharply: Class trumps gender and self-interest trumps everything. Feminism shouldn’t have been expected to change that, and it didn’t.

Most of this analysis comes in the first half of Wolf’s book. The second half is taken up with a far less interesting discussion of the mating practices of today’s professional women. Not surprisingly, given the social Darwinist foundation laid in the earlier chapters, this turns out to be mostly about ensuring the continued strength of the bloodline. Family is very important to alpha primates as it not only keeps their elite genes in the game, but gives them a leg up on others, or at least keeps them from sliding down the ladder.

And so it seems the more things change, the more things stay the same. Which is of course a good thing, and not.

Review first published January 24, 2014.

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