Changing Families and feminist blind spots: have female friendly policies been captured by middle class feminists?
On Wednesday, Alison Wolf will be delivering the third lecture in the Demos series “A Post-Liberal Future”. Wolf in her book “The XX factor; how working women are creating a new society” highlights how we are living in a unique historical period where for the first time women have genuinely equal access to the educational and career opportunities which were once only the preserve of men. But the most important part of the story she tells, and one we are charged with remembering is that it is only 15-20 per cent of women who benefit from this – the rest are doing the same sort of work as they have always done – but this time in a poorly paid, predominantly female workplace, where they are no longer their own bosses but work to other people’s schedules outside the comfort of their home.
Now I suspect that a feminist policy response to this would be to devise new and ever more innovative ways of trying to extend their own good fortune to the rest of the female population. This I will argue is an inappropriate and destructive response. At a flippant level I could flag up the facts, which Wolf draws our attention to, that elite women are more stressed, work longer hours and have fewer children than they want to, and ask who wants to be like them anyway?
At a more serious level I could point to the consistently emerging evidence, which Wolf also reminds us of, that the majority of women do not want to work longer hours, they value their family role and there is a very strong preference for part-time work.
Feminists however find it very difficult to understand this because for them, as Wolf explains, the yardstick for wellbeing is equality of outcome with men in the realm of work. Feminism “measures progress by whether men and women are equally represented at all levels of every occupation, all paid at equal rates”.
So for feminists if women aren’t working it must because they don’t have cheap enough childcare or because their men aren’t doing their share of the housework.
What feminists miss and what constitutes their blind spot is the importance of the forces and relations of reproduction. These are the plate tectonics of the social structure already shaping society from below and ready to remind us of their existence should we forget.
And this is the other key thread running through Wolf’s book. There are not as many female CEOs as there are male because women are building children into their career plans in a way which is not applicable to men. Mixed colleges won the meritocratic race back in the 60s not because of the working through of feminist principles but simply because Alpha men preferred a college where they could meet a potential mate. If we want to know why the elite work so hard it is so their children can follow them and if we want to know why less well off women don’t, it is so they can reproduce.
For the feminists who make the policies for the 80 per cent it is relations of reproduction which they need to look at. We know from Wolf that these women have children younger, they have more of them and when they do, they take a significantly longer break from work. This is because it is not careers but children and family which bring meaning and satisfaction to their lives, and they know that it is their ability to give care and attention to these children and to provide them with stable and supportive families which will ultimately enable them to compete on a level playing field with their privileged peers.
The other significant difference between these women and their elite sisters is that the latter are considerably more likely to be married and have intact nuclear families. For the less well-off it is this intact nuclear family which is far more likely to deliver decent prospects for their offspring than institutional childcare or a second wage.
Wolf tells us that “The likelihood of an economy structured for the convenience of mothers with children is vanishingly small whether at the pinnacle of the job pyramid or down below”. Let us hope she is wrong for this is exactly what we have to do if we want to create fairer chances between the privileged and the less well off. One way of doing this is to create family friendly tax and benefit systems, for example a generous marriage tax allowance. This would enable a husband’s wages to go further thereby potentially extending the period of time a mother can stay at home and care for her children before having to go back to work. But this is only a partial solution.
At the other end of the social scale, the biggest barrier to marriage and to intact nuclear families is an undersupply of educated or skilled, decently earning prospective partners. The emphasis on creating equal opportunities for women in the desirable arenas of the job market has resulted in a woeful neglect of the other half of the human race. If we want less advantaged women to have the same benefits as the elite, it is not female employment we should be looking at. This would simply supply our privileged sisters with a cheaper supply of worker bees to help them with their care. Rather we need to give significant attention and resources to the education and training of males and start thinking seriously about the role of men.