Working girls

For the first time in history, women in developed societies can take up any occupation or career they please. This has brought enormous benefits. But it has also had some less positive consequences—the death of sisterhood, a decline in female altruism and growing disincentives to bear children
April 22, 2006
Click here to read a reply to this article by Pat Thane, and click here to read Alison Wolf's reply to her critics

In 1945 the British public sector abandoned the marriage bar, which had required female teachers and civil servants to stay single or resign in favour of male breadwinners. In the 60 years since, women's lives have been transformed, and, with them, family and community.

You might not think it—given the media focus on pay gaps and glass ceilings, and the Women and Work commission's recent finding that women in full-time work earn on average 17 per cent less than men—but for the first time, women, at least in developed societies, have virtually no career or occupation barred to them. The people most affected by this change, and the main subject of this essay, are professional and elite women. Women used to enter the elite as daughters, mothers and wives. Now they do so as individuals.

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This marks a rupture in human history. It is one that has brought enormous benefits to many people, and to many women in particular. But its repercussions are not all positive, either for society as a whole, or for all women. We are no more likely to return to the old patterns than we are to subsistence agriculture, so we need to understand what the new female labour market means for all our lives. Three consequences get far less attention than they deserve. The first is the death of sisterhood: an end to the millennia during which women of all classes shared the same major life experiences to a far greater degree than did their men. The second is the erosion of "female altruism," the service ethos which has been profoundly important to modern industrial societies—particularly in the education of their young, and the care of their old and sick. The third is the impact of employment change on childbearing. We are familiar with the prospect of demographic decline, yet we ignore, sometimes wilfully, the extent to which educated women face disincentives to bear children.

In the past, women of all classes, in all societies, shared lives centred on explicitly female concerns. Today it makes little sense to discuss women in general. Instead, they divide into two groups. A minority of well-educated women have careers. A majority do jobs, usually part-time, in order to make some money. For the former, there is very little, if any, disadvantage associated simply with being a woman. If they are equally qualified and willing to put in the hours, they can do as well as any man. Of course there are still individual chauvinists around, but the statistics are clear: among young, educated, full-time professionals, being female is no longer a drag on earnings or progress. But for the majority of women, this sort of life remains a fantasy. Their families are their top priority, they dip in and out of the labour market, and they are concentrated in heavily feminised occupations, such as retailing, cleaning and clerical work. Their average earnings—per hour and over a lifetime—are well below those of males. Ambitious graduates generally belong in the first group; all other women in the second.

This is a caricature—but not much of one. Academic experts on the female labour market occupy very different points on the political spectrum, but they agree on the polarisation of women's experiences. The feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, reflecting and feeding into a revolution in women's lives, spoke the language of sisterhood—the assumption that there was a shared female experience that cut across class, ethnic and generational lines. The reality was that at that very moment, sisterhood was dying.

Gender politics still encourages us to talk about women as a group with common interests and demands. Yet this is far less true today than when, as Kipling observed, the "Colonel's Lady an' Judy O'Grady" really were sisters under the skin. In The Gentleman's Daughter, her fine study of 18th-century elite women's lives, Amanda Vickery quotes one of her feminine subjects, writing that "my time is always imployed and if I do take a pen I always meet with some interrupsion." Once childbearing began, this would have been true for all classes. Only in a tiny number of very wealthy homes did servants free wives and mothers from the running of a household, in which the vast bulk of food and clothing was prepared from scratch. Nursemaids were a supplement to the mother, not a replacement; before aspirin, let alone antibiotics, women could expect to spend much of their time, wracked with anxiety, tending the sick.

From the early 19th century, paid employment outside the home became increasingly possible for educated women. Outside the middle classes, full-time work until marriage was the norm; and poor married women and widows supplemented family income out of necessity. But what all women—educated and uneducated—assumed was that after marriage and childbearing, their lives would centre on the home.

Today this pattern is transformed. Mothers in general return to work sooner than their mothers or grandmothers did. But as Heather Joshi of the Institute of Education has shown, there are new and widening differences between the less and the more educated. The best educated most often go back to work the moment maternity leave is over (or before). Of course, a few highly educated women opt for full-time motherhood. But the norm is that educated women work in the same way, and increasingly in the same jobs, as men. Those with few or no qualifications, in contrast, are likely to be out of the labour force for several years. They are concentrated in predominantly female occupations, and tend to work full-time before children but part-time afterwards. About 13 per cent of women of working age can be classified as professionals, managers or employers, and nearly 70 per cent of them are in full-time work. For non-professional women in this age group, the figure is just 35 per cent.

In the recent past, women's earnings over a lifetime were a small fraction of their husbands', especially if there were children, and even if there were not. This has ceased to be true for the educated but childless in the generation who are now middle-aged. The gender gap for women with children is shrinking rapidly too. Educated younger women are projected to earn as much as men over a lifetime if they have no children, and almost as much even if they do. A female graduate born in 1970 who has two children can expect lifetime earnings that are 88 per cent of her husband's, whereas for those with middle-level qualifications the figure falls to 57 per cent and for those with no formal qualifications at all to only 34 per cent. This gap mostly reflects part-time work and career breaks: it is these differences, not some male employer conspiracy, that drives the headline figures on the disparity between male and female pay.

Feminists dispute the reasons for the rapid growth of female part-time work. Many believe that it is the result of continuing barriers to female participation and gender discrimination. However, Catherine Hakim of the LSE, who has done most to document and analyse its rise, believes that it is usually chosen. These patterns are preferred by most women, she argues, because they fit with their home commitments and these are still their primary concern.

Most working women continue to have jobs, and not careers. Compared to in 1850 or 1900, there are more retail and office jobs and fewer in mines, fields and mills. At the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, some women can even be "married" to the state and live on benefits in a way no previous society could have imagined. Otherwise, the underlying pressures and priorities for most women have stayed surprisingly similar over a century or more.

The revolution has taken place at the top. A majority of trainee barristers and almost two thirds of medical students are now female (up from 29 per cent in the early 1960s), and the majority of doctors will be women by 2012 on current trends. In 1911, four out of 205 surgeons (2 per cent) qualifying with England's Royal College of Surgeons were women: the figure had only reached 4 per cent by the late 1950s. In 2005 it was a quarter and rising steadily.

Hakim has examined the proportion of women in "the most senior occupations which play the major part in running a country": occupations which correspond, roughly speaking, to "class I" jobs in sociological analysis and exclude schoolteachers and nurses. In spite of this, by the end of the 20th century, 43 per cent of such class I job-holders were women.

Female representation is not, of course, so evident if one concentrates on the very top jobs: managing directors of FTSE 100 companies, self-made billionaires or high court judges. How could it be, when these people are mostly in their fifties and sixties, and part of an earlier, more "gendered" generation? The change, in so short a time, is nonetheless extraordinary and cumulative. Some people believe that we have reached the high-water mark for female penetration of elite jobs. I cannot see why that should be the case.

Upper-middle class professional women of today may choose "mommy-track" jobs to allow somewhat more time with their children. But a human resources manager who leaves work at 5.30pm to relieve the nanny is just as representative of the death of sisterhood as a 9am to 9pm female fund manager. Both have chosen careers around which to fit family life, not family life punctuated by jobs.

On the women's pages of newspapers, arguments over whether or not mothers should stay at home with small children usually attract a large and emotional postbag. What gets far less attention is the impact of recent change on other parts of society beyond the family. The revolution in female opportunity has also had a huge effect on the public services and voluntary work. It has reinforced other changes in our society—the decline in religion, the glorifying of self-actualisation—to transform our behaviour and values. Welcome to the end of "female altruism."

The period from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century was a golden age for the "caring" sector in one major respect. It had the pick of the country's most brilliant, energetic and ambitious women, who worked in it as paid employees, but who also gave enormous amounts of time for free. Now, increasingly, they do neither.

Here too, the changes are most obvious among the elite. By the 17th and 18th centuries, upper and middle-class women were educated, cultured and well read. They also had no career open to them other than marriage. Paid employment for an impecunious female member of this class, in so far as it existed at all, was restricted to the education of the young as a governess, or the care of the old as a companion. But in the 19th century, education was transformed, and with it, women's careers.

A network of schools for all classes developed, schools whose workforce was rapidly feminised as the century progressed. In 1851, the British census counted 42,000 schoolmistresses, plus 21,000 governesses, but not a single female physician or surgeon. By the 1891 census, the "professional occupations" group contained a remarkable 313,000 women compared to 342,000 men. Among the women, 217,000 were teachers and 53,000 were nurses. There was a grand total of 101 female physicians or surgeons, 345 dentists and two vets. In 1891, then, as in 1851, a female middle-class professional was pretty much synonymous with a teacher.

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, teaching could rely on attracting large numbers of the country's most academically able women. Clever working-class girls progressed from "pupil teachers" to schoolmistresses, while growing numbers of middle-class girls also entered the profession. By 1910 there were two female teachers for every male in the state sector, and by 1925 the majority of headteachers were women. Academic secondary education for girls, first in the independent sector and later in the state secondary schools, developed hand in hand with university education for women. On the eve of the first world war, just under half of women secondary school teachers were already graduates. The alumni records of Somerville college, Oxford, one of the first and most academic of the women's colleges, confirm how many brilliant women made their lives in the classroom. In 1888, surveying the first ten years of college life, the annual report found that all working ex-students were teachers, with the exception of three. As late as 1920, we find a (much larger) class matriculating, of whom just two, an art dealer and a director of an iron-founders, made "non-caring" careers. Teaching, at school or university level, remained the majority occupation by far for the 1920 generation, accounting for 80 per cent of those who reported recent or current paid employment. By contrast, just over 10 per cent of the Somerville women who matriculated in 1980 report a teaching career. The government's Women at Work commission is pushing for school advisers to preach the merits of non-traditional careers to girls. But in this elite Oxford group, there are already more accountants than teachers, and both bankers and marketing managers outnumber university lecturers and librarians.

Schools have been the big losers. Among girls born in Britain in 1970, about one in ten of those scoring in the top academic decile chose teaching as a career. By the early 1990s, American girls in this top 10 per cent were less than one fifth as likely to become teachers as their 1964 counterparts had been. In health, the pattern is more complex. Many of the ambitious women who once became ward sisters and hospital matrons now look elsewhere, but offsetting this are the growing number of women doctors and specialists.

Does any of this matter? The first century of professional paid work for women saw traditional female concerns move into the public sphere. If the able women of 70 or 100 years ago entered classrooms and hospital wards merely because nothing else was available, they would have brought little commitment to their work, and greater choice would clearly have benefited them and society alike. But this is not how it was. These women mostly saw their jobs as a vocation. Many of them lived in a world which took for granted such duty and service to others. They shared an openly expressed idealism, and a belief that their jobs mattered—especially to the future of other women.

The relative decline of these values and the number of such service-oriented women is sometimes cited as a reason for the perceived deterioration in health and education services, despite the far greater sums of money being spent on them (see "A Public Realm" by Nicholas Timmins and Barry Cox, Prospect, July 2001). The apparent decline of a specifically female public service ethos is impossible to measure but is surely connected to the retreat of religious belief.

The pioneering female professionals of the 19th and early 20th centuries were imbued, in an unselfconscious way, with the language and values of religion. Duty to God, and duty to their fellow women and men, were inextricably combined. If we do not understand this, we will not grasp how different the world of our modern elite women is from that of their grandmothers. Or, indeed, from their grandmothers' grandmothers. Most educated 18th-century women regarded the traditional "women's work" of caring for home and children not with 1960s feminist disdain, but with the values identified by Vickery's study of Georgian "gentle" women: love and duty, fortitude, propriety and resignation. These women were not saints, but they saw the world differently.

The centrality of religious belief in both public pronouncements and private lives marks out the different country of the past. Few women were as eminent as Dorothea Beale, the great headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies' College and founder of St Hilda's, Oxford, for whom "moral training is the end, education the means," or Julie Velten Favre, who sent the first generation of highly educated female professeurs into the French lycées to "take charge of souls." But these leading educators lived in a world where actively "doing good" was both a major part of many women's lives, and intrinsically linked with religious faith and instruction.

In Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain, his recent study of the decline of Christian charity, Frank Prochaska estimates that on the eve of the first world war there were close to 200,000 volunteer "district visitors," linked to one or other of the churches. They were overwhelmingly women and offered a range of services: financial help, medicines and medical advice, recipes, clothing, links to potential employers and, along with these, bibles, tracts, and pressure to attend church services. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development of myriad charities with religious links, many of them aimed at women and almost all relying heavily on female volunteers.

Today, the middle-class working-age female volunteer has all but vanished. Voluntary organisations are increasingly run by professionals. Religion has become marginal to the lives of most British citizens. Theda Skocpol, in Diminished Democracy, notes how mass-membership cross-class organisations in the US have been replaced by professionally staffed advocacy groups concerned to influence policymakers and the direction of public funding.

Few phenomena have a single cause. The fact that middle-class women are all out at work is one reason, not the only one, for the decline of voluntary action. Equally important is professionalisation of almost all occupations and the increasing importance of government in the non-profit sector: in the mid-1980s about 10 per cent of charitable revenues came directly from government sources—today it is 38 per cent.

Yet the virtual disappearance of home-based, educated women (at least below the age of 60) has had an effect. A path once followed by able women across the developed world led to university, teaching and then motherhood, homemaking and voluntary work. Such women are now too busy. The average amount of time that today's British citizen, male or female, devotes to volunteer activities is four minutes a day.

The old unpaid female labour force is now otherwise engaged. Ask the Girl Guides if you doubt this. Scouting and guiding are themselves redolent of that vanished past. Yet Robert Baden-Powell understood exactly what excites and interests children, and the movement has them queuing, often vainly, at the door. What it lacks are adult leaders.

There is a chasm between the moral purpose voiced by female pioneers and the iconic female advertising slogan of today—"Because I'm worth it." We could, I suppose, write off the beliefs of the former group as the opium of the educated female classes, developed to reconcile them to unequal lives. But then we should see our own obsession with female occupational success as an ideology too. As late as the 1940s and 1950s, education white papers were still imbued with the language of morality and idealism. Today's are concerned almost entirely with the economic benefits of schooling, and the delivery of occupational skills. This mirrors the priorities of mainstream feminism, which is equally focused on the workplace—and which evaluates female advance accordingly.

Geraldine Peacock, the head of the Charity Commission, reflected current attitudes when she remarked approvingly on the growing number of big charities headed by women. It was a welcome sign of change, she said, given that until recently "the sector still smacked of volunteerism" and so put off "women who wanted to make a career." Similarly, Natasha Walter, in Prospect ("Prejudice and evolution," June 2005), marshalled the usual statistics (average salaries, number of female senior judges) to argue that "full equality is still a distant promise." For Walter, it is so obvious that equality should be measured in terms of whether men and women are equally represented at all levels of every occupation that she sees no need to spell it out.

One could interpret today's feminist assumptions as reflecting the appetite of global capitalism for all talent, female and male, at the expense of the family. Certainly our current economic arrangements offer precious little support to family formation. On the contrary, they erect major barriers in its way. We all know by now that in most developed countries, birth rates are well below replacement level. Less recognised is the massive change in incentives to have children. In the past, adults had no tax-financed welfare state to depend on. Their families were their social insurance policies: children paid. Today, they expect the state to take care of their financial and health needs when ill or retired, regardless of whether they have six children or none. The benefits we get are completely unrelated to whether or not we contribute a future productive member to the economy.

Moreover, our labour market, with its greater gender equality, makes childbearing a very expensive prospect for successful professionals. Rearing a healthy, balanced child requires intensive attention and large amounts of time, and is not something that technical progress is going to alter. The price of that time is especially high for high-earning, busy elite parents—female or male. If they give up or cut down on work, the opportunity cost in terms of income forgone and careers stalled is far greater than for an unskilled 16-year-old school-leaver. In addition, elite children are expensive. Children are dependent for longer, high-quality childcare is costly and formal education has become increasingly important as the route to success. Parents know this, and it explains why the professional classes devote so much money and attention to their children's schooling.

As the American economist Shirley Burggraf has pointed out in The Feminine Economy and Economic Man, the financial disincentives to childbearing have become so high for upper-middle income families that the puzzle is not why professional women have so few children but why they have any at all. She observes, "no society until recent times has expected love alone to support the family enterprise. To put it another way, parental love has never cost so much."

Value-based volunteering is giving way to professionalised organisations with public sector contracts, and personal fulfilment for both sexes is increasingly evaluated in economic terms. Yet we still rely on traditional values and emotions to produce the next generation. It is fortunate that children are so intrinsically rewarding or our birth rate would be far lower still.

The hard economics tells us that professional women will have to give up most if they have children, and so will be least inclined to do so. Highly educated women overwhelmingly stay in work and so pay little or no earnings penalty when they have children. But more and more of them in the developed world have no children at all. "The rich get richer and the poor have children" still applies; but this time around, it is women specifically that we are talking about. About 30 per cent of graduate women born in the early 1960s entered their forties childless. For graduate women born in 1970 (a substantially larger group) the expected figure is 40 per cent.

Unlike professional graduates, childbearing is a rational career choice for academically failing girls and one that a good many duly select, especially in countries where they are supported by the state. Among British women born in the late 1970s, almost half of those with no academic qualifications at all had their first child by the age of 20, compared to 1 per cent of those with degrees. Only 20 per cent of the first group, compared to 85 per cent of the latter, were still childless by their late twenties. There is no reason to believe that teenage and uneducated mothers are any less loving and devoted than others. But there is plenty of evidence that their children are likely to be relatively unproductive future citizens, less skilled in their turn, and more likely to experience unemployment.

Birth rates have been low before. The average proportion of women bearing children, and the average number of children per mother, is pretty much the same for those born in 1910 and those born in 1970. In between, of course, there was a baby boom. What is different this time, however, is the pattern of child-bearing. Today there is a very strong inverse relationship between education and childbearing. Last time around there was not.

Authors on the left find it especially hard to recognise that the occupational emancipation of women may create intransigent problems for the future of our societies. The IPPR think tank illustrates the problem. One of its most recent reports, "Population Politics," recognises the demographic crisis and calls sensibly for clear population policies. But in doing so, it manages virtually to ignore the well-established relations between education and childbearing.

Burggraf, in contrast, argues that the tension between the modern workplace and family wellbeing is real and irresolvable so long as our societies place no financial value on the activities that take place within the home. In her view, feminists and economists share the blame. For the feminist, unpaid home-based activity is labour performed under the lash of patriarchy. For the economist, unpaid work does not contribute to GNP and so does not exist .

Politicians, journalists and businessmen often emphasise the negative economic consequences of any barriers to female participation in the workforce, and of losing half the country's best brains to the kitchen sink. Of course they are right, and I am in no hurry to go back there myself. But it is striking how little anyone mentions, let alone tries to quantify, the offsetting losses (or "social externalities") when women choose work over family. This is stupid.

Women today are no more homogeneous a group than men, and the service ethic that traditionally supported civil society and public service has weakened. Families remain central to the care of the old and sick, as well as raising the next generation, and yet our economy and society steer ever more educated women away from marriage or childbearing. The repercussions for our futures are enormous, and we should at least recognise this fact.