Have middle class women captured family policy?

Between now and next May’s election, we will no doubt hear more and more about what ‘women’ want, what is ‘good for women’, and what each and every political party ‘will do for women’. It is time this stopped.

Thinking and talking this way is a throwback to the past. Women’s lives are no longer defined, in each and every class, by whether they make a good marriage. On the contrary, they differ from each other just as much as men do, and in parallel fashion.

For highly educated women, all over the world, professional success is the new normality. True, only a small number of FTSE-100 companies have female CEOs. But in the rich countries club of the OECD, half of the well-paid professional and managerial ‘class 1’ jobs are now held by women.   Law schools are now 50/50 female and male, whereas just a few decades ago, hardly any women were lawyers. Among people under 40, in comparable jobs, with comparable time in the workplace, there is no evidence of continuing gender discrimination in pay. And change is happening far faster in the developing world than it ever did in the West.

It is a victory over historic discrimination. But it also reinforces today’s trends towards greater income inequality. Inequality among women is increasing much faster than inequality among men. That is partly because successful women started from behind. When many careers were barred to women, their earnings were more equal. As doors opened, some women’s earnings pulled away. But there’s another reason too.

Modern elites depend on cheap labour. Elites always have done, and this hasn’t changed just because the elites are now co-ed. Once, successful men were catered for by female servants, and by their wives. The wives are now out there carving their own careers. But the female servants are still very much in place. Some of them are inside the home: but many are outside.

Today, we employ huge numbers of nannies and cleaners. We also employ millions and millions of nursery assistants, care assistants, dishwashers, housekeepers: armies of women doing traditional female tasks. Nurseries and care homes are big sectors, and we outsource most of what we once did in home kitchens: fewer and fewer meals are prepared at home. Workers in these sectors are low-paid. They are also overwhelmingly female. Without them, today’s two-career, two-salary elite families simply could not exist.

Today’s female workforce features a professional elite for whom a career is as central to personal identity as it is for elite men. It also features a female majority whose work patterns are very different. They do jobs. And they do jobs which fit with and around their family responsibilities and priorities. They are, therefore, very often part-time. Part-time work is both the norm and a preferred option for vast proportions of the female workforce. It is also the reason for that notorious ‘pay-gap’.

The difference in the life-styles and interests of professional and other women is now enormous, not just at work but in family life. Live among today’s upper-middle classes, and you might get the impression that no-one even contemplates pregnancy until 30 looms. In the UK, the proportion of graduates having a baby before they are 30 halved in the last few decades; the same in France. The pattern is international. But only for graduates.

As recently as the late 1970s, having a first child after the age of 30 was highly unusual for women of any class. Today non-graduate women still have their children at what used to be a ‘normal’ age for everyone. Peak child-bearing is between 25 and 29; few non-graduates go straight back to work full-time. The highly educated – men and women – are also much more likely to remain childless.

The demands made by vocal, elite women, and the pre-occupations of politicians seeking the ‘female vote’ have become extraordinarily divorced from majority concerns. Take the ‘30%’ campaign – the demand for at least 30% of board members in large public companies to be female. It has attracted huge publicity and traction. But data from Norway, which made it a statutory requirement some years ago, demonstrate that it has done nothing for the female labour market generally; had no impact on female pay and promotion in the companies concerned; and had no positive impact on their profits either. It has, however, made some women very rich.

All female short-lists for Parliament are another favoured cause. But there is no evidence whatsoever that women vote for a candidate because she is a woman. Even child-care subsidies look less ‘progressive’ when you look at who actually benefits. Cheaper childcare polls well with parents of young children – why wouldn’t it? But extra subsidies have very little impact on female participation rates.

That is because the mothers who use organised childcare when their children are very young are, overwhelmingly, either the educated middle class, who work regular hours, in stable jobs or the very poor, who get special, high levels of aid. 

In between, large numbers of women are working in part-time employment. Both they and their partners are often on shifts, their work location often changes: they need the flexibility that highly regulated provision can’t provide.

‘Sisterhood’ is dead. Different women have very different lives, and interests. And policy-makers should attend to labour market facts, and not just at the view, and voices, from the female summit.

Alison Wolf’s book, The XX Factor, is published by Profile Books.