How the rise of the alpha woman is creating a more unequal society

Alison Wolf
OURS is the age of cities. The best and the brightest head downtown and have created a society whose elite classes are unique in human history. Why? Because they are made up, in equal parts, of alpha women and alpha men.

This isn’t about well-paid men with high-spending wives. That is the way it was 500, 100, even 50 years ago. Today, at the top, our labour market is genuinely mixed. Across Western Europe and North America, professional and management jobs are now split evenly between men and women. In high-end workplaces – finance, media companies, research laboratories, Whitehall – men and women work with and for each other. An all-male meeting has become a rare and curious sight.

As cities suck in the ambitious, talented young, the countryside suffers. Travel north through Sweden, towards the Arctic Circle. Are you offered reindeer steaks? No, Thai food. The bright girls have left for Stockholm: and so the farmers and loggers bring in wives from Thailand or Vietnam. Fifty years ago, country girls were already packing up, to go husband-hunting among the city’s alpha males. Today, they are off to make their own alpha careers.

Female professionals and managers now number 70m worldwide, 20m in Europe alone – and the numbers are growing. They work alongside men. They also become partners, spouses. City workplaces are where two-career families are born.

The media love house-husbands, and they love trophy wives, especially if they are wife number four and blonde. They are fun to read about, but they are minute in number. Alpha men aren’t marrying bimbos and alpha women aren’t marrying stay-at-home husbands either. Young graduate professionals marry other young graduate professionals, and both keep on working.

This ever-growing group of two-career, two-salary families are financial winners. Our societies are becoming more unequal, but it isn’t just the top 1 per cent who benefit. The top 15 per cent are also doing nicely; and earnings inequality among women has been growing faster than among men.

Among professionals, the evidence shows that we do, now, have equal pay for equal work. If you put in the hours, you get the salary and the bonus. Of course, not all sectors, or all workplaces, are equally male-and-female-friendly. In top banking and finance jobs, men are still a clear majority. In law and medicine, by contrast, a clear and growing majority of graduates and young professionals are women.

That is because mothers generally take the main responsibility for childcare. So talented women are attracted to careers where you can avoid living in an airport lounge. But few successful women drop out of work entirely if they have a child (and the ones who do are mostly married to men who are very rich and mostly away). More generally, over a lifetime, the effects of motherhood on alpha women’s progress and earnings are shrinking rapidly.

And then there is everyone else. High-earning families live increasingly distinct lives, and the divide is especially clear in the female labour market. Four-fifths of women don’t work as managers or professionals. Their working world is dominated by “female” jobs, with hardly a man in sight. The “top” jobs, the ones that actually employ the most women, involve tasks which mirror what all women used to do at home, unpaid. So women are care assistants; they are cleaners; they work in factories preparing the ready meals that have liberated other women from the kitchen. Meanwhile, a whole range of traditional male jobs – construction, lorry driving – remain just that: male.

Women in traditional female jobs are also likely to work part-time, and to drop in and out of the labour market for family reasons. And they are the reason why average female pay is lower than men’s. Doing a low-paid service job part-time fits many women’s family commitments but plays havoc with their pay rates. Lump women together and you get a low average. You also miss female success at the top.

These differences are part of a general revolution in lifestyles, as I discovered in writing my recent book. Successful women don’t just differ from the “other” four-fifths in the jobs they do. Their education was different, their sex lives and leisure are different. They, and the men they work with, have different numbers of children at different times. They even divorce differently. But it all flows from the distinctive world of the modern city.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King’s College London and author of The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society (Profile)

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