The Death of Sisterhood Around the Globe

by Alison Wolf

For educated women all over the world, professional success is the new normal. You no longer have to be an extraordinary woman and a thick-skinned pioneer to do well. In the OECD countries, half of the well-paid professional and managerial jobs are now held by women. It is a victory over historic discrimination. But it also reinforces today’s trends towards greater social and income inequality.

Four years ago, I started writing about the seismic change this has brought: not just to the workplace, but also to families, charities and the home. At the time there were 70 million highly successful female professionals in the world; four years on that number is at least 75 million. And change is happening far faster in the developing world than it ever did in the West.

But one consequence is too often ignored. Whether focusing on historic discrimination or measuring female progress, feminists, politicians and the media all tend to treat women as a single group. Women, they assume, have shared interests and shared handicaps. This is wrong. Women today are more different and more divided from each other than ever in history. Sisterhood is dead.

In all cases where good data is available, 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, and as doors opened, some women’s earnings pulled away. But there’s another reason too. Elites have long depended on cheap female labor in the service sector, and this hasn’t changed just because the elites are now co-ed.  Once, the needs of successful men were catered to by their wives and by female servants. The wives are now carving out their own careers. But the female servants are still very much in place, some inside and many outside the home.

Today, we employ huge numbers of nannies and cleaners. We also employ millions and millions of care workers, dishwashers, housekeepers, and nurses: armies of women doing traditionally female tasks. Much of this work is now outside the home, rather than within it. Caring for both children and the elderly are now big sources of employment, and we outsource most of what we once did in home kitchens. But the work itself is the same. And this workforce is overwhelmingly female.

Many contemporary women—the majority—do low-paid work in occupations that employ very few men. And because these women obviously can’t afford their own servants, they also often work part-time, fitting work around family demands. Without them, today’s two-career, two-salary elites simply could not exist.

Just a century ago, for women of all classes, the one thing that mattered was making a good marriage. The United States in 1910 did not have a single female judge or veterinary surgeon, let alone a self-made CEO: the men holding these positions had stay-at-home wives, as well as servants—almost all of them female. North American incomes per head then were close to China’s today; but contemporary Chinese women face a very different world. Today, half the world’s female self-made billionaires are Chinese. Meanwhile, in Thailand over one-third of senior positions in large, privately held businesses are held by women; and Rwanda tops the world for the proportion of female legislators.

Professional women in developing countries have more and cheaper servants, and more extended family networks to help them. But so did women in the West one hundred years ago.

Today’s rapid female success, at far earlier stages of development, surely reflects the victory of ideas. It is harder and harder for people to believe that women are intellectually inferior. Even traditional Islamic clerics educate their daughters—to become PhDs, not nursery assistants.  This liberation of talent is a huge step forward for humanity; but we haven’t and aren’t reaching Utopia. This workplace revolution reinforces the wealth and position of a particular group: professionals and senior managers, women and men: the fifteen percent who hold good jobs, study together, work with each other, and marry each other, too.

Successful men, it turns out, very rarely marry admiring yet uneducated women, and successful women likewise tend to avoid “marrying down.” Instead, the highly educated, both men and women, partner with each other and then devote their wealth, brains, and networks to ensuring their children’s educational success in turn. The major challenge for the coming decades is not how to get more women onto corporate boards, but how to cope with the widening divides among women across society.

About the Author

Alison Wolf is author of The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World. (Crown Books) She is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, and an advisor to the UK government, and has also worked as a policy analyst for the US federal government.

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