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Road to corner office fractures sisterhood

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/10/2013 (1370 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What a great book this might have been if only Sheryl Sandberg hadn't beaten it to the punch.

For what's an academic to do after investing several years and much effort into researching a book on women in the workplace only to find Sandberg's much-hyped bestseller, Lean In, got there first?

If you're Alison Wolf, renowned British economist, director of public services policy and management at London's King's College, recipient of the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (one step below being a Dame in the British establishment pecking order, two steps up from the Beatles), you find a snappy title even if all that impressive research doesn't exactly back it up and hope for the best.

Perhaps that's not entirely fair.

Wolf presents an impressive depth of research in her first chapter to nicely make the point that middle-class women have soared in the last 40 to 50 years, with their access to halls of higher learning and society's acceptance that married women will work. But, Wolf says, it's all at the expense of a fractured sisterhood.

Yes, well-educated women are doing just fine, but the lot of women not academically inclined or without resources for higher education has improved little, if at all.

They continue to work at menial labour, often cleaning or caretaking for the low wages paid by well-educated women, and take their status in life from having children early.

There's a gaping chasm in the quality of life between middle- and working-class women, a gap that's expected to grow.

But it's a little less clear "how the rise of working women has created a far less equal world," as Wolf's subtitle claims. Interesting fact: the book's subtitle when it was released in Britain earlier this year, was "how women are creating a new society." It, too, confused reviewers.

It would help if the reader could determine whether this is a manifesto for progressives rallying the troops to better the lot of working-class women.

Or is it a tool to be co-opted by regressives, perhaps America's Tea Party, to bludgeon middle-class women out of the work force and back into the home? Maybe Wolf intended to leave the book's purpose to the eye of the beholder, but a little hint one way or the other could have cleared up much confusion.

Things get even foggier as she veers off into a vast array of research that seems to be apropos of nothing. Some of it is interesting on its own.

It's news that most of the self-made female billionaires in the world are in China. But Wolf's argument is a little strained that it's because wages are low in a developing economy such as China's so these women can afford help in the home.

Two hundred years ago, she says, Britain was becoming one of the first industrialized nations, wages were low thus servants readily available, yet British women did not rise to become titans of industry.

Other research is not so interesting. It's not news that women used to have only sex and their looks to trade for a station in life. Nor is it news that A students, both male and female, tend to lose their virginity later in life. Nor that the introduction of the birth-control pill in 1960 brought great freedom to women.

The XX Factor finds its roots in a 2006 essay called Working Girls, which Wolf wrote for Prospect, a U.K. magazine. Many a heated argument was waged across Britain over the 4,500-word piece, which pointed out, among other things, that the feminism of the '60s and '70s was in fact the death of sisterhood.

Perhaps 4,500 words was enough to make her point. Another 475 pages just stretches the thesis too thin.

Julie Carl is the Winnipeg Free Press associate editor of reader engagement.


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