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Working girls

By Alison Wolf - posted Monday, 22 May 2006

In the 21st century, women - at least in developed societies - have virtually no occupation barred to them. The people most affected by this change, and the main subject of this essay, are professional and elite women. Women used to enter the elite as daughters, mothers and wives. Now they do so as individuals.

This marks a rupture in human history. It is one that has brought enormous benefits to many people, and to women in particular. But its repercussions are not all positive. We are no more likely to return to the old patterns than we are to subsistence agriculture, so we need to understand what the new female labour market means for all our lives.

Three consequences get far less attention than they deserve. The first is the death of sisterhood: an end to the millenniums during which women of all classes shared the same significant life experiences to a far greater degree than did their men. The second is the erosion of female altruism, the service ethos that has been profoundly important to modern industrial societies, particularly in the education of their young and the care of their old and sick. The third is the impact of employment change on childbearing. We are familiar with the prospect of demographic decline, yet we ignore, sometimes wilfully, the extent to which educated women face disincentives to bear children.


From the early 19th century, paid employment outside the home became increasingly possible for educated women. Outside the middle classes, full-time work until marriage was the norm and poor married women and widows supplemented family income out of necessity. But what all women, educated and uneducated, assumed was that after marriage and childbearing their lives would centre on the home. Today this pattern is transformed. Mothers in general return to work sooner than their mothers or grandmothers did.

But there are new and widening differences between the less and the more educated. The best educated most often go back to work while their child is still a baby. Of course, a few highly educated women opt for full-time motherhood. But the norm is that educated women work in the same way, and increasingly in the same jobs, as men.

Those with few or no qualifications, in contrast, are likely to be out of the labour force for several years. They are concentrated in predominantly female occupations and tend to work full time before children but part time afterwards.

In the recent past, women's earnings through a lifetime were a small fraction of their husbands’, especially if there were children, but even if there were not. This has ceased to be true for the educated but childless in the generation who are now middle-aged. The gender gap for women with children is shrinking rapidly too. Educated younger women are projected to earn as much as men through a lifetime if they have no children and almost as much even if they do. This gap mostly reflects part-time work and career breaks: it is these differences, not some male employer conspiracy, that drive the headline figures on the disparity between male and female pay.

Feminists dispute the reasons for the rapid growth of female part-time work. Many believe it is the result of continuing barriers to female participation and sex discrimination. However, Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics, who has done most to document and analyse its rise, believes it is usually chosen. These patterns are preferred by most women, she argues, because they fit with their home commitments and these are still their primary concern.

Most working women continue to have jobs and not careers. Compared with 1850 or 1900, there are more retail and office jobs, and fewer in mines, fields and mills. At the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder some women can even be married to the state and live on benefits in a way no previous society could have imagined. Otherwise, the underlying pressures and priorities for most women have stayed surprisingly similar for a century or more.


The revolution has taken place at the top. In the UK, a majority of trainee barristers and almost two-thirds of medical students are female (up from 29 per cent in the early '60s) and, on present trends, by 2012 the majority of doctors will be women.

Hakim has examined the proportion of women in "the most senior occupations which play the major part in running a country". By the end of the 20th century, 43 per cent were women. Female representation is not, of course, so evident if one concentrates on the very top jobs: managing directors of top companies, self-made billionaires or judges. How could it be, when these people are mostly in their 50s and 60s, and part of an earlier, more gendered generation?

The change, in so short a time, is nonetheless extraordinary and cumulative.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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This is an edited version of the article first published in the April 2006 issue of Prospect magazine.

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About the Author

Professor Alison Wolf is Professor of Education, Head of Mathematical Sciences Group and Executive Director of the International Centre for Research in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. She is the author of Does Education Matter?

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