The Gender Revolution We Often Forget About


I found a recent podcast of EconTalk to be highly fascinating. As a father of three girls, I do spend a great amount of time worried about the career opportunities and lifestyle choices that my daughters will face. I do wonder whether there is in fact a glass ceiling that my daughters will face should they choose to devote their lives to careers with equal commitment and skill relative to their male counterparts. I do worry about the challenging forks in the road that they will face between careers and child-rearing, which for better or worse tends to fall more heavily on their shoulders. All of these reflections drew me to this episode in which Professor Alison Wolf, Baroness of Dulwich, put focus into the tremendous growth in education and economic prospects that have occurred amongst the top 15-20% of the global women elite. The offshoot is that these elite women have closed the gap amongst their men social class peers and consequently have created a tremendous gap between their less educated and less well-off women gender peers. In essence, the Gender Revolution of the last 50 years is as much about professional women catching up to men in their class as it is about those same women diverging quite starkly from their less educated gender peers. One might add that these same professional women have also quite distanced themselves from blue-collar men, but that issue was not heavily explored in the podcast.

The host, Economist Russ Roberts of Stanford’s Hoover Institute, opens with a quote from Professor Wolf’s recent book, The XX Factor: 

Until now, all women’s lives, whether rich or poor, have been dominated by the same experiences and pressures. Today, elite and highly educated women have become a class apart. However, these professionals, businesswomen and holders of advanced degrees, the top 15 or 20 percent of developed countries’ female workforce–have not moved further apart from men. On the contrary, they are now more like the men of the family than ever before in history. It is from other women that they have drawn away.

Wolf’s response puts it into perspective that I have never really thought about before:

Think back to, for example, a world of–America. And what you would find is that whether or not you are a girl in a well-off Boston household or a girl on a hardscrabble Appalachian farm, what decided your life was whether or not you made a good marriage. Essentially, you had to make a good marriage. Everything else was secondary. You had to make a good marriage because that’s what you were born into the world to be. You were born into the world to be a wife and a mother. Which would mean you would have status and security and hopefully children to look after you in old age. And you would be the one who reared them. Or, you were going to be a spinster, on the shelf, with essentially no capacity of making a career. So, whereas a boy from a tough background could, occasionally, with difficulty make it on his own, as a woman you just couldn’t. You simply couldn’t. So, whatever you were, that was what being a woman was. I don’t mean that it was all utter misery for everybody but it didn’t make any real difference. What the wealth of your family was, that was what defined you. And that meant that all women had a completely common set of concerns and experiences. And in that sense, they were a sisterhood. I don’t mean they all liked each other, and there were definitely rivals. But they were a genuine sisterhood in the sense that they had all this in common. And today, if you are a clever or privileged young person, whether you are at Oxford, Harvard, Brown, Kings–where I teach–you have far more in common as a female student with the male students who were alongside you than you will with a vast majority of other young women in your country. And it’s the class that really matters. The class has always mattered. But as a woman you just kind of hung on to whichever class you were born or married into. It wasn’t really ¬your class in the sense that you’d created your class position. You just kind of hung in there. Today, you as a woman can also be upwardly mobile or downwardly mobile. And it’s your self-made class–it’s you as an educated or less educated, fortunate or less fortunate, careerist, non-careerist woman who makes your fate. And you are very likely to marry somebody like you, if you marry at all. But what really decides your life is that you are or aren’t a member of that top 15%

In the back and forth dialogue between Roberts and Wolf, they both discuss the contrast between women of “high society” today compared to those in the Jane Austen novel era. The key difference is that in those days, women’s “success” was largely defined by who they married. Pulling in another historical narrative on the topic, my recent reading of Mary Beard’s book on Roman History, SPQR, painted a picture of women’s lives in the late B.C. and early A.D. era that were dreadfully oriented chiefly around their ability to produce children. Whether from the class of aristocracy or bondaged slaves – the chief aim of women’s lives who were often subjected to arranged marriages was, to put it crudely, economically beneficial maternal production. The high rates of death during childbirth in Roman antiquity certainly did not add to the allure of being a woman during this time, so I am easily grateful for the prospects and choices that my daughters will have. That being said, it does present a fair degree of pressure on the parent to focus on and promote their daughters’ education, which is another focal point of the podcast dialogue.

Much of the rest of the discussion focuses on some of the key differences that have driven separation in woman’s class – namely achievement in education levels, marrying much later in life, marrying exclusively within their professional class, divorcing infrequently, and working throughout child rearing (although sometimes taking what Wolf calls “sideway” positions that are no longer taking them rapidly up the corporate ladder) Contrast these factors with less educated women lifestyles where one sees much higher rates of children born out of wedlock, children born at much earlier ages, higher divorce rates, and an often complete removal from the workforce once child rearing begins.

Less focused on in the podcast is the divisive issue over whether men and women doing the same work are paid differently, so listeners looking for deep thoughts on this hot button issue won’t find answers or even that much speculation, although Wolf does make the observation that one reason for the disparity is likely the continued social acceptability of women taking a step back or taking the “sideways” path to provide more time to raise children compared to men. Wolf and Roberts also make the observation that women are beginning to dominate graduating classes of defined professions such as medical and legal, which Wolf observes one reason behind this is that these are fields where women can still contribute meaningfully to while balancing child rearing compared to less defined roles in business management where the lack of defined professional success factors and paths lead to hours worked as proxy for success. The implicit prediction here is that there remains much to be seen and revealed in where these career choices of women play out in the way our culture and society is structured, although Roberts, as a classically trained libertarian economist out of the Chicago/Austrian school would no doubt indicate that social forces that are not really controllable or predictable will determine the outcomes and that heavy-handed government will at best be counterproductive.

There is a lot in an hour podcast that I won’t fully discuss here, but I do highly recommend the listen.  I provided a link to the desktop file, but EconTalk can be found and subscribed to on many smartphone podcast apps. My personal favorite happens to be Podcast Addict.




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