Make room at the top

The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society, by Alison Wolf, Profile, RRP£15.99, 464 pages

The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, Jossey Bass, RRP£18.99/$27.95, 304 pages

No sooner have women been advised to “lean in” to achieve workplace success by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg than we are offered two more expert takes on women and work – one firmly rooted in current reality, the other speculative about the future.

Alison Wolf’s book The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society is rooted in today’s culture. The 73 pages of detailed endnotes signal that this is a substantial undertaking, and one in which the author moves beyond the obvious, the voyeuristic and the trite. Hers is not another polemic about working women.

Instead, this is a fascinating account of the lives of the female working elite, who now number 70m globally. Wolf, an economist and professor of public sector management at King’s College London, studies the relationship between education and the labour market, and it is to this area that she turns in order to understand more deeply the current reality of women and work. The highly educated women who have Wolf’s “XX factor” are, as a global cohort, larger than the population of the UK or France. They are graduates employed in jobs with a career path; many of them, no doubt, are readers of the Financial Times.

One of Wolf’s central assertions is that it is not the gap between women and men that is widening; it is the gap between the highly educated woman and her less educated female peer. In this winner-takes-all world, where “high earners draw away, women are a substantial part of the pack”. Moreover, in a world of intense globalisation and technological development we can expect some fundamental changes in the nature of work.

The reality of women with the XX factor is that many are creating lives for which there are few role models. The XX Factor, however, is not a self-help manual, nor does it provide a how-to primer for corporate executives seeking to swell the number of women in senior roles. Instead, 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.

As a result of Wolf’s forensic precision, there are times when her book makes uncomfortable reading. It raises questions about the relationship between this global elite and the “sisters” who are cooking their food and looking after their children. It also offers uncomfortable insights about the choices women make. Early in the book, Wolf signals her determination to debunk the myths surrounding these choices: “What people believe is happening is at odds with the documented facts.”

Commonly held beliefs receive a big “wrong” cross beside them from Professor Wolf’s tight reading of a vast array of sociological, gender, labour and demographic studies. For example, the idea that women are paid less than men is just not true, she says, for the highest paid or younger professionals: “In every OECD country, the proportions of men and women in the highest-earning quintile are correspondingly very similar. Like for like, younger women and men are paid the same, and accumulate wealth at the same rate.”

She also demolishes the myth that ambitious elite men marry trophy wives, instead outlining a finely tuned process of “assortative mating” that matches elite men with elite women who go on to live “socially segregated” lives and produce an elite child.

Many of these women are not completely forgoing family life in favour of their career. Among people born in the UK in 1958 and educated to higher degree level, the proportion who reached their forties without children was 30 per cent for both men and women. Wolf’s number-crunching suggests elite working women tend to have only one or two children – because of the prohibitive cost of childcare, and school and college fees – and they have them late. Statistics show that few graduates take career breaks when they become mothers; indeed many take minimum time off because they believe that extended maternity leave would be a high-risk strategy. There is too much to lose.

And what of the rise of the “house husbands” prepared to support ambitious women and care for their children? It seems that this is a highly publicised but statistically tiny phenomenon; most elite women marry similarly high-flying men. Mothers don’t want to be the “sole or even the main support for their child” and what they are looking for in a partner is (as it ever was) someone who will be a “good, dependable and solvent father”.

Wolf also busts the potent myth that, compared with the stay-at-home mother, working parents neglect their children. In fact, workers spend substantially more time with their children than anyone did in previous generations. Why? Because spending time with children is considered to be the best way to nurture offspring who will be able to navigate the obstacle race of the elite global labour market. Child-rearing in this milieu, Wolf says, “is not about being at home with the kids around the place, running in and out, but about time spent in dedicated, attention-giving, tiger-mother mode.” Private schools are a given. And then they need a good college education. As one American parent tells Wolf, “getting your kid into Harvard or whatever is a full-time job.”

Wolf acknowledges that two-income families “have heralded the return of the servant classes” but she points out that “it is ‘tag team’ babysitting by parents balancing shifts, and not the high-paid nanny, that is most representative of modern family life.”

Wolf may topple some of our assumptions but it seems that others hold true. For example, she reminds us that it really is difficult for professional women, in politics at least, to age naturally. She cites a 2010 study by academic lawyer Deborah Rhode: “Of the sixteen female United States senators between ages fifty-six and seventy-four, not one has visible grey hair; nor do 90 per cent of the women in the House of Representatives.”

What does this all mean for women and men at work, and will corporations ever have gender equality at the top? For Wolf the answer to the second question is a clear “no”. She predicts that “at the very top of a profession 30 or 40 per cent female is going to be common, and a 50/50 split will stay rare.” In the majority of dual-career families the primary responsibility for bringing up children rests with the mother, and Wolf does not see any evidence that in the future women will cede parental responsibilities. Indeed, she argues that, despite the feminism and sexual freedoms that began in the 1960s, the importance of marriage and the nuclear family is strongest among the educated.

Wolf’s is a fascinating account of current reality, but readers may question her linear extrapolation into the future. There is certainly clear evidence that gender parity is unlikely in the working lifetimes of today’s young women. There have been many suggestions about how to promote it, such as creating gender quotas for senior executive roles, building more flexible career paths, encouraging women to create powerful networks, and enabling men to take more of a parental role (the Sheryl Sandberg outlook).

But perhaps we don’t need to act to make changes. Might it be possible that the world of business will transform in a way that favours women and their particular talents?

This is the view of John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio in The Athena Doctrine. Their outlook is set out in the subtitle: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. While Wolf believes the nurturing role of women will work against them in achieving senior roles, for Gerzema and D’Antonio the very characteristics that have held women back (most importantly, that pesky need for them to look after people and raise children) are emerging as trump cards in the game of life. Theirs is an alluring vision: “We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent, and transparent. And in this world, feminine values are ascendant. Powered by these values – like co-operation, communication and inclusiveness – institutions, businesses and individuals are breaking from old masculine structures and mindsets to become more flexible, collaborative and caring.”

To back up their arguments, the authors – Gerzema is a data expert and social strategist and D’Antonio is a journalist – have surveyed 64,000 people in 13 countries. They found that 57 per cent of those asked agree with the statement: “I’m dissatisfied with the conduct of men in my country,” and 66 per cent agreed that “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.”

It seems that across the world “feminine” traits (that would be the intuitive, expressive, loyal, flexible and empathetic sides of our characters) are seen to be more central to leadership, success and happiness than “masculine” traits (those that are analytical, decisive, aggressive, independent). On a whirlwind tour of 10 countries from Iceland to Bhutan by way of China and India, the authors show how the Athena Doctrine (named after the Greek warrior goddess, and used here to mean desirable feminine traits and values) is favoured.

Their conclusion is that feminine values are the underlying operating system of 21st-century progress. If it’s true, it’s a profound shift. To follow up, they offer ideas about how corporations can gain from this change. If, as they argue, “the essence of the modern leader is feminine”, then businesses will need to beef up their capacity to support nurturing, inclusive decision making and empathy.

This contrast between current practice and a future vision sets up an interesting tension about what is happening and what is possible. The reality of Wolf’s analysis is undeniable, as those 73 pages of endnotes attest; and yet the promise of Gerzema and D’Antonio’s vision is compelling. Time alone will tell what choices today’s young men and women will make, and the extent to which corporate culture and structures will be transformed as a result.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School and author of ‘The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here’ (Collins)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.