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Sisters in arms: Are alpha females doing it for themselves?

Published on Friday, 03 May 2013

The existence of the glass ceiling is, for most of us at least, something of a given. But in light of “100percentmen”, a new blog listing organisations and job titles where there have never – yes, never – been any women, then there’s a lot less space at the top than we thought.

Perhaps this is why ambitious, powerful women are often regarded as a group apart, or – in the case of a new book by Alison Wolf called The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society – as a supergroup of uber-women (15-20 per cent of the total) who see their professional life as central to their identity, more so than anything else. In other words, sod child-mongering, these women literally mean business.

If it sounds as though this is yet another example of social scientists fostering an “Us versus Them” mentality, that’s because it is. The British magazine, The Spectator, is already blaming “XX” women for sparking an all-female class war. They are, apparently, an elite bunch who share men’s habits: their drive, their ruthlessness, all those other generalised professional traits so particular to the lads. Meanwhile, the “less driven” 85 per cent of women, with their tiresome domesticated lives and their narrow concerns, resemble an alien species.

Indeed, Janice Turner of the London-based Times argued that the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg – whose book Lean In was the last media-friendly thesis on how women are still not doing it right – had missed a trick by failing to understand that “many women aren’t driven” and “don’t love work as we do”.

Of course, most people don’t love to work, full stop. But let’s for a moment examine this idea that most women are, as a gender, rather lacking in ambition. It’s true that many women are happy to leave their paid jobs behind when they have kids, but it’s also fair to say that many women quit because they earn less than their partners and it makes financial sense.

Moreover, it’s much easier to leave your job when you’re in a badly paid, low-level position (as many more women are) than it perhaps would be if you’re in a high-earning, high-profile job that gives you money, status and satisfaction.

These so-called XX women, with their highly stimulating jobs and “low boredom threshold”, decry the mundanity of staying at home. But if you’re not an XX woman and are bored at work (and underpaid and unappreciated) then you might as well be bored at home.

I don’t doubt that, for some, motherhood provides an escape from the soul-crushing relentlessness of work. (Only for it to be replaced by the soul-crushing relentlessness of changing nappies.) And yes, I suppose that by opting out, it makes you unambitious, if you’re determined to see ambition purely in that way. But equally I fail to see how a failure (or an inability) to
reach the upper echelons of any given profession necessarily means you’re a lackadaisical numpty.

And so that old fallacy of meritocracy strikes again. The truth is you can dream big and work hard and get nowhere. I can see how it would be tempting to single out powerful women as an elite group – to succeed in areas dominated by men, they probably do need to be particularly focused and scrappy.

So, rather than regarding ambitious women as outliers, we need to realise that, for women at the top, it is not necessarily the qualities that got them there that make them exceptional, but the fact they are there at all.

Maybe pretending their downtrodden sisters simply aren’t that arsed makes these XX women feel better about that. They may be creating a new society, but the real question is: who for? And how much room is there for the rest of us?

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett co-founded and edits feminist blog The Vagenda
Guardian News Service

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