Excerpted from The XX Factor by Alison Wolf. Copyright © 2013 by Alison Wolf. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A conversation with noted English journalist and author of
THE XX FACTOR: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created A Far Less Equal World,
(Crown, October 1, 2013)
1) What was the most surprising thing you found while researching The XX Factor?
A) The importance of pizza! The arrival of home deliveries transformed women’s lives, and pizza came first. It was ready-cooked food that cut the time women spent on housework–washers, dryers and dishwashers had, amazingly, almost no effect at all on women’s time. Less housework plus easy-to-buy hot food at the end of a working day, transformed women’s ability to take demanding paid jobs. A lot of other things surprised me as well. For example, which women get married and when, the extraordinary number of female Chinese billionaires, and the fact that we are wrong about the common belief that women work more than men. But if I have to pick one, it has to be the pizza!
2) You mention in The XX Factor that while the gender gap is narrowing among a select group of highly educated women, the gulf is widening among women themselves. What, if anything, can be done to help bridge the gap between these XX women and the rest of the “sisterhood?”
A) If we had domestic robots, the intelligent, flexible science fiction sort, then life would be very different. But we don’t. Children have to be looked after, the old and the sick need care and nursing, and it is all seriously labor-intensive. The meals we eat out and order in don’t cook or serve themselves either. Women and men who are making successful professional careers can only put in the hours and enjoy the lives they do because they can afford to offload a lot onto other people who are paid much less. I personally find it hard to imagine a world in which all the nurseries and kindergartens are staffed by men, the care assistants and housekeepers are men, and women have taken over trucking. So I think the majority of women will indeed continue to do traditional female tasks, which often pay much less, while the educated top fifth lead very different lives. At least until we get the robots.
3) There have been many books published recently about women in the workplace, including Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. How does The XX Factor differ from those books?
A) First, I think I have lots of new things to say! But also, many books, including, of course, Lean In, are about how to beat the odds. They want to tell readers how it can be done. I think there are a lot of truly inspiring women in The XX Factor; but I’ve set out to describe and explain their success, not give direct advice. That said, if you understand our world better, you’ll be better suited to deal with it. There is also a lot written about the glass ceiling, the Mommy track, and books about what is wrong and how to fix it. My book is very different from those, too. It is not about specific workplace problems facing women, but takes a really broad sweep: Where are we going? Are women's lives moving in the same direction everywhere, or is the U.S. following a different path? Why are things changing so much faster in the developing world than they did in the U.S. or in Europe? And The XX Factor also looks at women as a whole, not just at professionals. I don’t think you can understand the lives of today’s educated professional women without also understanding just how different they are from the majority of contemporary women. And how much they are like educated men.
4) What’s the single-most important take away that you’d like for readers to have after finishing your book?
A) I’d like them to look at the world a bit differently, and notice things they didn’t before. I hope that reading The XX Factor will refocus everyday life, so it’s clear how many surprising effects female employment has had, and keeps on having. For example, successful female bankers and lawyers wear expensive shoes with impractical very high heels. Elite campuses have a hook-up culture. When you have men and women of roughly the same intelligence going to school together, The Girl Scouts and other volunteer organizations are finding it hard to recruit leaders with less women available for volunteer activities. On almost all our streets and shopping centers, there has been a steady increase in the number of cheap-but-slightly-different restaurants cropping up. These are all things we have probably vaguely noticed. However, they not only make perfect sense but also fit together- or should once you’ve read the book! And I’m sure there is a lot more that I have missed and which XX Factor readers will spot.
5) How did your own professional experience influence your approach and inspiration for the book?
A) Oddly enough, I’ve never really thought about using my own life as an inspiration for a book. Instead, The XX Factor grew out of conversations with a friend who edits a magazine. He kept asking me questions about how successful women deal with modern life, and what the consequences would be. Questions like, why does anyone ever have children given the demands of modern careers? Are we really going to see a big rise in stay-at-home fathers? That got me thinking about all the things I didn’t know and what I wanted to be able to answer. Once I started my research, I did think hard about my own personal experiences and decisions. I now feel that in many ways I was very typical, but also very lucky in exactly when and where I was born. So in part, the book is my own story, and that of my contemporaries, but it’s also the story of the generations just behind me. And one reason I believe in my findings is the reaction of younger friends who read the manuscript and told me “I’m reading my generation’s story.”
6) How do you see the advancement of women changing in the next 10-20 years?
A) “Never predict, especially not the future” is always sound advice! But assuming that we don’t have a world-wide economic meltdown, it’s hard to see why current trends wouldn’t continue. In younger generations, women are even more well represented in elite schools and professions than they have ever been; the supply of cheap female labor providing domestic support won’t dry up that soon; men will still want ‘top class’ female partners (and vice versa); and lengthening careers mean that, even if you take a break, the childcare years are a small part of a working life. So more of the same—successful women being seen as a normality, but short of binding quotas, the gender divide will not be 50/50 at the top.
7) Based on your findings, what advice would you give young women who are looking to get into the workforce? What about women who are already embedded in the workforce?
A) Get a good education, from a school with a high reputation, is the conventional advice. It’s conventional, and it’s also right. But I’d also caution against too much of a good thing. One of the clouds on the horizon, for women, is the ever-lengthening period that people spend in formal education. Fine if we were immortal, but our biological clocks are ticking remorselessly. Second, if you have children, don’t drop out of the workforce completely if you can help it, but don’t panic if you do for a bit. There really is life after 40 or indeed 50, and increasingly so. Finally, in our brand new working world, families still make a huge difference—it’s not families or success, in fact quite the reverse. In a tough world, families help define and support you and provide the real safety nets, just as they always have done. And of course, that’s about giving as well as taking.
New York Times Book Review Editor's Pick
“The XX Factor reads like a Guns, Germs, and Steel of women’s roles...In short, with The XX Factor Wolf accomplishes a rare feat: She combines real breadth with real depth. No matter how much you think you know about this hotly debated subject, and whether or not you agree with every one of Wolf’s ideas, you will come away from her book with new information—some merely amusing, but some foundation-shaking.” – New York Times Book Review
“Meticulously researched, global in reach and grounded in data, The XX Factor elevates and informs a jaded and adversarial debate that often turns on sound bites and anecdote.”– Wall Street Journal
“Provocative and vital… Accessibly written and enlivened with anecdotes and interviews, Wolf’s research is thoroughly documented and features uncommonly informative footnotes and helpful graphs. Her assessment of how things have changed since the time when ‘marriage was women’s main objective and main career’ and the ways in which ‘the modern workplace detaches our female elites from both history and the rest of female-kind’ will yield productive controversy.”
– Publishers Weekly (starred)
"Teems with interesting statistics and useful knowledge... Solid research and intriguing patterns make for a worthy...read." – Kirkus Reviews
"This multidimensional and well-researched book shows the enormous advances in the integration of women into the workforce, the benefits that have been received but also the challenges that remain before women will have true equality in the labor market. Compelling, surprising and sometimes frustrating, Wolf's an agile, able and learned guide to this important subject." –Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel laureate in economics
“Alison Wolf has made a brilliant, lucid, and original contribution to the debate about women and the modern economy. If you care about women, work and families in the world today, you must read this passionate, fact-filled book.” –Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats
“You may disagree with her interpretations of some of that data, but after reading The XX Factor we can no longer talk blithely about what “women” want and do versus what “men” want and do. Alison Wolf injects a raft of valuable and often surprising data into the “having it all” debate. Wolf shows convincingly that the advances of professional elite women have wrought enormous social change but have also created deeply different life experiences between elite women and their less privileged sisters.”—Anne-Marie Slaughter, President, New America Foundation
"Powerful, brilliantly argued, provocative and original—an outstanding book from a compelling thinker." —Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist and Adapt
"Women have made great strides in the workplace, but in The XX Factor Alison Wolf urges us to look not just at the progress we've made but at the distribution of those gains and the many women being left behind. The XX Factor shows us how far we've come, but also, more importantly, how far we've yet to go."—Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post
"Alison Wolf’s skill is to use facts where others have only opinions. The results will infuriate and stimulate almost every reader." –John Kay, author of Obliquity
"Wolf has written an exhaustive, intelligent, thoughtful and at times provocative and idiosyncratic analysis of what it is to be an elite woman. By laying out the choices that women are faced with and the consequences of their actions, Wolf is ensuring that we do not have to walk blindfold into the future." –The Financial Times
“Highly readable... A clear, well-written and extensively documented account of the lives of educated women." –The Times Literary Supplement
“A crucial bible for anyone wanting to check up on anything about contemporary woman.” –The Guardian
"Full of such factual richness... The XX Factor is a feast of data." –The Sunday Times
"Just when you thought you never wanted to read another word on working woman, here comes Alison Wolf sweeping away the sloppy prejudices and dreary whining, presenting us with some bracing facts. The XX Factor is an exhilarating piece of analysis that explains once and for all why educated women have done so well (though there will never gender equality in the boardroom), and why they have become a class apart to the other four fifths. Cheering and sobering by turns, it puts to shame other books that have been written on this subject."—Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times columnist