Is Feminism Middle Class & Elitist? Yes, says Alison Wolf

I heard an interview with Baroness Wolf on a BBC radio news programme recently, when I thought I heard her say that feminism today was doing nothing for the majority of women.

My attention was piqued and, I have to admit, my dander was up. As a working class girl who discovered feminism at age 14 and embraced it wholeheartedly, I was horrified by the suggestion that I had become part of an elite, doing little for true equality and ignoring my less well paid ‘sisters’.

But she did make me think.

Baroness Wolf cited a middle class preoccupation with women getting seats on the boards and said that in countries where they had enforced that (Norway) no demonstrable difference could be perceived. The exchange was necessarily short and inconclusive so I was interested to read the whole speech. A short twitter exchange followed during which ‘Society Central, where evidence meets policy‘ gave me permission to reproduce Alison Wolf’s speech here. I have reproduced it below and shared my thoughts at the end. Please feel free to add your own:

Alison Wolf’s Speech

In a recent Demos lecture, Professor Baroness Alison Wolf argues what pass for family-friendly policies are often nothing of the sort. The debate about women and work has been dominated by professional women, she says.

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.

Suffice to say for now that I do not wholly agree but I take her point about class. The gap between rich and poor has certainly widened in the last decade but I don’t lay the blame at the door of feminism.

With regard to some of her other points, I don’t see feminism as only being about a seat on the board. I do see having better representation of women on boards as an important issue, however, whether the majority even know or care about it. We still have too few women in Government or industry to say if their presence has made a positive effect, but McKinsey in 2012 reported that it had benefited businesses and an IBM report likewise.

As to Norway, I think it takes time to bring women on and equip them with enough experience to make a difference and I’m not quite sure why the fact that it has made some very rich is of any consequence. Except, I guess, that it backs up Wolf’s argument that feminism is only for an elite and look, women have made money out of it. I’d be more aggrieved if only the men had benefited. I have family in Norway and their childcare arrangements are superior to ours with men being able to take equal amounts of paternity leave. Surely once more men are seen to value looking after children it’s overall value will go up? (The irony of that statement is not lost on me.) Feminism has long argued for changes in that arena.

I think it is very important to note and argue for equal pay; ‘women’s’/caring work is undervalued, and it is important that we pay them properly. It’s scandalous that women get paid less than men, generally at any level, but of course, the lower down the pay scale the worse it is, and the fewer resources you have to make choices. I can’t disagree with any of that but the corollary to that, I think, is that all women stay home and do their own cooking and cleaning and childcare?

Yes, of course the pay gap is connected with part time work, and with women stopping work when they have children. Call me an idealist, but that’s because working arrangements have been organised to suit men and what they want. For me, feminism is more than creating conditions where women can behave like men; it’s about changing attitudes so that caring is seen as important work, done by either gender, and valued accordingly.

Wolf is arguing for more socialism in feminism; we probably wouldn’t disagree on that point. Where I do part company with her is her view that feminism has left ordinary women out of the equation. Feminism is a huge spectrum of people fighting for equality and all have different passions. Many women did not support women getting the vote but ultimately we all benefited.

And finally, Baroness Wolf made me think about my own contribution to feminism; am I contributing to the elitist model by having a course for women? Is my course accessible to all women? This is the bit that hurt, and why, I suspect, I kept banging on about this for days after the broadcast. Like many working class kids who have had access to University and thus many more life choices, class guilt has ever occupied a space in my head.

In my social work career I’ve worked with women from all backgrounds, in prisons, hospitals, for example. The circumstances are always different but the intention was the same, to empower women to make changes in their lives, to challenge the status quo. My RenewYou course came about because I wanted to design something that appealed to all women. Hence no role playing, no lecturing, and actually, no overt feminism. Just space to think with the emphasis on building on achievements and growing confidence. In house, I have delivered it to women at every level. My group of trainers have diversified that audience more, using it with women via trades unions, stay at home Mums, women across the spectrum. It’s not perfect, of course not. But it does empower women who undertake it.

Is the ‘sisterhood’ dead? More likely it has never really existed in the terms of women supporting other women unreservedly. As to Alison Wolf’s final sentence: And policy-makers should attend to labour market facts, and not just at the view, and voices, from the female summit, when have policy makers ever just listened to women’s voices? If we are now at a stage where what women want is calling the shots I’ve missed it.

RenewYou is an internationally renowned course and available across the UK, in Australia, USA, South Africa, and beyond. To see the dates for all current RenewYou Women’s Courses please click this link.


Posted on January 29th, 2015 by

7 Responses to “Is Feminism Middle Class & Elitist? Yes, says Alison Wolf”

  1. Penny Haslam says:

    Dear sister Jane
    Good work on bringing this to light – it’s a really complex subject, with many facts and feelings to consider. You’ve articulated some difficult points really well, I’m not sure I can do the same. I just find it incredibly challenging that Alison Wolf chooses to point the finger at women who are able to vocalise inequality as being elite. I’m just a middle class girl, earning bugger all, banging a small drum for women’s equality. I think the WOB has dominated a bit at the beginning, but helped open up a huge amount of discussion which continues, about women in the workplace. This is chucking a bit of a spanner in and is an old discussion I think from the 3rd wave of feminism, oh and the 2nd and the 1st.
    I could pull her up on a couple of points, for eg, the parity of law students now does not translate into ‘job done’ and mean greater equality in the legal sector (just 13% of high court judges are female) and that Norway’s efforts have not translated to better conditions for all (so they shouldn’t have bothered??). She left out the word…’yet’ sadly.
    It’s divisive to call this out, that feminism is yet again elite. Can’t we point the finger of blame at the structure of capitalism itself? That’s a harder discussion to get off the ground that’s for sure, and would include I daresay, a handful of “elites”. Nothing is ever perfect, but doing nothing, saying nothing, changes nothing. Enough energy expended on this I feel…onwards! Best, Penny x

    • Jane says:

      Thanks Penny. There was so much to say. Not least that it matters not a jot if profits go up when women are on boards – they don’t have to be better than men! Again, that old chestnut of women have to better than men to be thought ‘good enough’. You are so right about capitalism and it’s elites. I haven’t heard any economists blaming feminism for our current predicament…

  2. Sally Jasmin Sarma says:

    Superb article Jane. What strikes me is how much people use psychological techniques to keep others from reaching their true potential. Women & minorities often have to be far more highly accomplished to be treated as equals. Why should we not expect equality and true personal and economic independence. Mercer released Ground Breaking Research on Gender Equality, which their CEO Julio A. Portalatin @JAPortalatin discussed at the 2015 World Economic Forum #WhenWomenThrive Businesses Thrive. We live in a world with great disparity in wealth and fragile economic growth. The world needs women to contribute to the success of businesses. Mercer estimates that greater inclusion of women in the workforce could boost global GDP by 34%. I’d recommend reading their research:

  3. Digging out the bottom line belief is hard but crucial, because that is the foundation that the world is built upon, together with “it’s always been that way”. Fear of change is often about fear of losing what you have now. This leads to a strongly held view that the way the world currently works is the best way and that is why any change agents, be they women or giraffes, have to be “better than” in order to get a look in.
    Chipping away at this view of the world as currently working in the best possible way has to be the first step.
    As you say – #peopleforpeople is an entirely appropriate slogan – and fundamentally more desirable than asking men to stand up for women, which is disempowering in itself! But many men still don’t see anything wrong in the way the world works so perhaps there is room for educating them and that is where #heforshe comes in.

    • Jane says:

      Cheers Lizzie, thanks for commenting. I didn’t actually make the comment on twitter re #peopleforpeople. I think that was Sam Pugh. @SamLP

  4. Anne Richards says:

    Very good debate. It is important to remember that closing the gender pay gap for those in lower income levels shouldn’t be regarded as the sole preserve and priority of the women who have fought their way to the top of organisations: it is the responsibility of the men too.

    Also, the inference from the article seems to be that we shouldn’t fight for fair representation at the top because there is still inequality elsewhere.

    However, it is a good reminder that we still have challenges at every level and we need to keep progressing on all of them.

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