Work-life balance, or success?

A conversation with the economist Alison Wolf

4 September 2015
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The extent to which working women are now creating a new society is unprecedented in human history, says Alison Wolf. And yet, the uncomfortable truth remains that everyone tends to take care only of his or her own social group.

Anna Wójcik: In your latest book, The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society, you write about how 70 million female professionals are changing both their societies and the global economy. Why did you decide to take on this subject at this particular point in time?

Alison Wolf: 70 million is a lot of people and this must have consequences! In the past there were a few amazing women and you can’t imagine how they achieved their success with all the structural obstacles they faced. Today, for the first time in history, many moderately lucky and intelligent women have successful careers.

Photo: Eugenia Loli. Source:Flickr

You concentrate on the critical mass of the most highly educated, high-earning women. Does this top 20 per cent of developed countries’ female workforces have any special obligations towards the other 80 per cent?

I don’t see any particular obligation towards the other 80 per cent of women. Certainly not more than the obligation that the corresponding 20 per cent of men have towards the other 80 per cent of men.

There was a period when all women felt oppressed in a way, and therefore more of them felt real obligation towards other women. This can still be found in emerging societies, where more fortunate women are coaching young girls. They feel a stronger impulse to look after the girls in patriarchal societies. This is not the case in the UK anymore.

Obviously, there are things that women have in common, as the experience of being a woman is different than the experience of being a man. But what is really clear about professional, successful and elite women is that they are, if you like, elite first, and women second. Some of them may have a social consciousness, some of them don’t. The majority probably doesn’t.

They do not feel the need to have more obligations towards other women than say, less fortunate people, handicapped children or maltreated donkeys. It’s not clear to me that men in that position do better either. In Victorian society, the top 10 per cent of men didn’t feel a sense of brotherhood with other men and they left all women out. I am not implying that all elites are completely vicious, but at the same time I often find them to be not particularly generous and compassionate.

This year, Zanny Minton Beddoes was appointed editor-in-chief of The Economist, the first female to take the post in the publication’s 171-year history. And Katherine Viner became the first female editor-in-chief at The Guardian. But women constitute only 13 per cent of the current readership of The Economist. Is this a figure that is likely to increase?

Magazines such as The Economist are perfect airplane reading material. Their readers tend to have certain occupations, which are still male-dominated. The magazine does not write for men, it writes for the people in those occupations, so when you are a woman in this occupation, you will find it just as useful. When you look at prestigious areas that are increasingly female-dominated, such as medicine and law, they are not The Economist‘s target market.

What puzzles me a little is the conviction prevailing among some people that women have interests as women and that all women embrace such interests. There is not a single thing you can do to The Economist that will suddenly make more women buy it. You can make it appeal to the top people in industry and banking, or make it appeal to the top people in medicine and law. The second option would contribute only a small increase in readership, so this is probably not the optimal strategy.

Has the appointment of Beddoes or Viner made headlines in the UK?

We are talking about “the first female editor-in-chief of The Economist or The Guardian“. But this label will become less relevant, as there are simply more and more women out there, trained and networked to take over managerial positions. I can’t see mass excitement among women in Britain because of Beddoes and Viner being promoted. Why would they get excited? The uncomfortable truth is, everyone is taking care of his or her own social group.

There are people who are supposed to be taking care of society as a whole. The percentage of women in parliaments worldwide is hugely disproportionate to men. What should be done to achieve more gender equality in legislative bodies?

Why do you want to represent women? Let me give you an example from the British parliament. I don’t understand why people think that because you are a woman you are automatically going to represent or understand the needs of other women, as if women were in fact a mass.

If you look at the British parliament and the two opposing parties, you see there are proportionally more women in the Labour benches, because they have seats where only women can stand. But if you look at this group of people in any other way – at their occupations, ethnic composition, how many are Oxford and Cambridge graduates – then the Labour and Conservative parties are almost identical. And they are both completely non-representative of society as whole, except for the professional middle classes! I’d love to have more variety there, but my top priority is not more women.

Throughout the European Union, women are more educated than men, but the financial gap prevails. Will it ever close?

One of the main reasons for the financial gap is the gender imbalance among the male-dominated financial elite, at least in the UK. At the same time, large proportions of women work in low-paid occupations. The gap would close if there were more women in top-earning positions.

Looking at the top 20 per cent of young professional women and men who don’t have children: discrimination is limited. However, men and women do still make different career choices, often because women presume they will be taking more responsibility as a parent. Those who eventually will become mothers are often proven quite right. In most families, women make more shifts in their career when children are born. That’s why many women, more or less consciously, tend to choose more flexible occupations than men.

All over the western world women are taking over in medicine – not because it is a profession related to caring about others but because, at least in Britain, it is a profession in which it is easier to work part-time, because your daily routine is segmented – you see different patients, do different surgeries. Medicine is becoming increasingly female-dominated, while banking, where you spend your life in planes, or lobbying in congress, is more likely to be male-dominated for this very reason.

The financial gap will narrow, we will see more female CEOs, but I’m not sure the gap will completely close if this attitude prevails.

There are more and more women in finance, such as Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund. Is this going to influence women’s career choices at all?

It’s difficult to say if that will make any difference. We have had lots of role models for quite some time, lots of female politicians… Do we have women politicians today because there were some women politicians before? Or because there is always a number of ambitious people who want this kind of career? Once the gates were opened, people rushed through even without previous examples.

My sense is that the world of finance is never going to be female friendly for the reason I stated before. The field that puzzles me most is actually engineering and computer science. I don’t understand why there are comparatively so few women in that field today.

We are addressing this issue in Visegrad Insight, presenting initiatives that encourage young girls to take a look at what coding is, what robotics is, and how you can creatively use mathematics.

People have been trying that for a long time in the UK, for decades. Today, I think the bias against girls’ ability to do maths or sciences is gone, but still I don’t see why so few women decide to become engineers. They should realize that this job brings in good money and go for it. In the early years, IT was very female. Women who were, for instance, maths graduates didn’t have that many opportunities elsewhere, so they started in this new industry.

Does the problem really lie in the fact that girls don’t want careers that bring in huge financial rewards?

I think girls and women want professional careers more than high-risk careers. But it’s not because of any psychological inclination. The conviction that men are more risk-taking is left over from previous cultures and increasingly less founded in reality.

When you have a profession, if for instance you’re a dentist, it’s actually easier to interrupt it, to go in and out of it. A lot of women consciously or subconsciously think: if I go for a profession, if I decide to take a year off because of children, to cut back a bit, my career will still keep going relatively securely. But if I go for a high-risk career, the minute I drop out, I will not be able to get back in. This is quite a rational argument.

It sounds rational, but in reality many women won’t have children at all for various reasons.

Yes! But you don’t know that, do you? You never know. If you ask people at 18… It’s always this chance event. I never thought I would have children young.

Will girls run the world?

There are some people who say that women will take over the modern world because they are less aggressive than men. Firstly, I don’t think personality differences are that huge among genders. Secondly, I don’t think women will take over the world. But the longer women work, the more equality there will be. Even the 1 per cent will be more mixed. Personally, I don’t think that striving for formal gender equality – 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women in boardrooms, media and parliaments – is the most pertinent issue we have to tackle now in western societies.

What is more pertinent than gender equality?

Don’t get me wrong, gender equality is extremely important today. Not labelling people as something because of where they come from is extremely important.

However, the issue I worry about in our modern world is, first and foremost, social mobility. British society is becoming more closed. The dominance of people who went to certain schools and universities has increased. We tend to obsess over
the very, very rich. I worry more about the fact that where you go to university has become defining.

Secondly, it worries me that so many jobs have become not so terribly skilled, not so terribly secure. People are working shifts, unfriendly hours. There are many jobs that aren’t meaningful. If they were paid a little bit better, this could perhaps compensate a bit for the endless hours and the drudgery. It is difficult to solve this issue in an open competitive economy. In England we create more and more low-paid jobs. Unemployment decreases, the jobs are there, but you are not paid very much.

Most of the jobs are not very satisfying. One can argue that this has always been the case. But it is striking how few are lucky enough to have jobs they can identify with.

And they too are still forced to work extremely long hours. Is there a way out from our culture of obsessive work?

The culture of obsessive work is difficult to escape. This is a part of the increasingly open and competitive global economy that I find particularly worrisome. It is not only detrimental to individuals, but also to societies. The most privileged and able people are giving less of their time and effort to community activities. This group used to have more time for leisure, but also for community activities, which allowed people from different walks of life to mix. Local communities were more cross-class. Today we may have more cross-gender friendships or cross-gender mentoring, but we don’t go more cross-class. We live in an increasingly class-centric society.

What should we change in our attitudes toward work?

Somehow, we need to persuade, motivate or shame people into just doing more once they hit 60. People are going to live till 90. They are going to work part-time until they are 75. Those who are privileged should go on less cruises and do more for their fellow human beings. The English believe they are big charitable givers. It’s obscene how little they give. They give almost nothing, neither money nor time. We are the richest we’ve been as a society and, compared to what previous generations did, we do so little. It’s shameful.

Is this attitude a hangover from the golden age of the welfare state?

This is the case in western Europe. In the United States people are used to giving more, to doing more, because there’s not much of a welfare state. I find the western European approach a bit depressing. Obsessive work culture combined with obsessive parenting – this is completely imbalanced.

Isn’t work-life balance a false alternative?

I don’t know anyone who has work-life balance. Perhaps some English doctors, because they are paid so well. For most people, a work-life balance isn’t an option. You can have it if you decide that you are not going to succeed.

What does “to succeed” mean?

Succeed both in terms of status and money, and supposedly of having the feeling at the end of the day that you have used your talents to the utmost. Which I think many of us feel as a moral imperative. If you have been given an ability to do something, you feel obliged to do it in the best way possible.

Is there ever likely to be a less hostile work environment than the one we have today?

The hope lies, paradoxically, in the fact that we are working so much longer. Instead of thinking about a world where people retire very early – which the welfare state cannot afford – we can think of a world where more people work into their 70s in part-time jobs. This also implies that the workforce of the future is going to be more gender-integrated than it is today, as the period when women are out of the workforce, when they are with small children, is going to be a smaller and smaller percentage.

The workforce is going to change dramatically. There will be a huge percentage of older women and older men who actually want to have to work part-time. The challenge is to provide them with this part-time work, so they can use the rest of their time in ways that contribute to creating a less-competitive, less hostile society.

Published 4 September 2015

Original in English
First published in Res Publica Nowa, 23 June 2015 (Polish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa
© Anna Wójcik, Alison Wolf / Res Publica Nowa / Eurozine

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